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Excerpts

Oil Beach: How Toxic Infrastructure Threatens Life in the Ports of Los Angeles and Beyond

By: Christina Dunbar-Hester

Oil Beach: How Toxic Infrastructure Threatens Life in the Ports of Los Angeles and Beyond by Christina Dunbar-Hester, published by The University of Chicago Press. © 2023 by Christina Dunbar-Hester. All rights reserved.

Coastal Translocations: Watery Life in Captivity

The Aquarium of the Pacific was founded in the 1990s during a period of questions about what to do with Long Beach’s harbor area. Much of the coast in San Pedro Bay is devoted to industrial use, and the entire shoreline is manipulated. On the far side of the port complex, near the border with Orange County, is a recreational beach. But the waterfront area right between the beach and the port, nearest to downtown Long Beach, had been subject to “ups, downs, and an identity crisis,” in the words of a New York Times reporter writing in 2000.35 In the very early twentieth century, the waterfront hosted the Pike, a Coney-Island-esque bathing area, boardwalk, and amusement park featuring rides and games, concessions, an elaborate hand-carved carousel, and, in a later era, tattoo shops (the buildup to World War II brought the navy to the harbor, and sailors brought demand for tattoos).36 

In 1979, the Pike was formally shuttered, though it was well off its heyday before then. The area retained some tourist attractions, notably the docked RMS Queen Mary ocean liner, Howard Hughes’s massive wooden plane, the Spruce Goose (encased in a custom-built geodesic dome), and an annual Grand Prix motor race, begun in 1975.37 But the area was underutilized by urban development standards, and the city considered how to update it. The Disney Corporation managed both the Spruce Goose and the Queen Mary starting in 1988.38 Around then, Disney expressed interest in siting a massive ocean-related theme park in the Long Beach harbor, to be called DisneySea; the entire complex was to include a research center and resort, and to be collectively called Port Disney.39 Fantastical artistic renderings of the complex resembled the contemporary Biosphere 2 artificial environment, with a glistening science-fiction sheen evocative of the space age. But these plans were short-lived; the park was never built.40 The harbor nonetheless contained glimpses of futuristic fancy: a 1967 artist’s rendering of an oil island at night rivals the Disney imaginary; and the Queen Mary and dome, although divested by Disney in the 1990s, still remain today. 

Fantastical harbor flourishes aside, the 1990s hit Long Beach hard economically. The navy consolidated its Southern California presence in San Diego, closing a naval station and hospital as well as shuttering a shipyard in the Long Beach harbor. In turn, aviation manufacturing plants reliant on military contracts also closed. It was in this context that the city looked to cultivate tourist attractions, with or without Disney’s involvement. (Simultaneously, the region pursued port development as an economic strategy.) It secured municipal financing to build an aquarium—albeit a more modest, far less spectacular one than the facility Disney had planned—and develop the harbor with a shopping center and refurbished convention center.41 The aquarium was paid for through government funding and philanthropic contributions, although indirectly the municipal funds were tied to the city’s oil revenues.42 The city owns the aquarium, which is managed and operated by a nonprofit organization.43 

Public institutions for the display of animals emerged in larger Euro-American cities in the nineteenth century, often with funding from scientific societies.44  Projects of taxonomy and empire, displaying unfamiliar animals from other locales, zoos and aquariums both satisfied and stoked public interest in animal life. Some early American zoos also bore the influence of the urban parks movement, emphasizing conservation of native species. Zoos often resembled amusement parks, offering children rides on ponies and Galápagos tortoises, transporting visitors around the parks on buses and trains, and dramatically exhibiting trained seals and chimpanzees to enthralled audiences, according to historian Pamela Henson. Not unlike circus sideshows, they emphasized the novelty and exoticism of their offerings, and they competed with other zoos, even to the point of keeping animal care regimens secret.45 By the middle of the twentieth century, conservation emerged as a more consistent concern, and zoos were coming under fire for animal exploitation and poor conditions.46 By the late twentieth century, zoos had brought conservation fully into their remit, including cooperating to serve as genetic reservoirs for endangered species, sharing information and resources, and addressing conservation in exhibits and mission statements.47 

The RMS Queen Mary ocean liner with Spruce Goose dome. Long Beach, 2011. Photo by David Jones, CC- BY 2.0 license.

Both the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Aquarium of the Pacific’s work with otters is in line with these trends. Zoos and aquariums conduct conservation work both in situ and ex situ, in field sites.48 But aquariums, unlike zoos, often work closely with local wildlife officials too.49 The aquariums’ otter work involves housing a native (sub)species whose numbers have dwindled in the wild with the goals of educating the public and expanding the population, within the parameters of their own institutional mandates and constraints.50 

As noted above, MBA has had ambitious otter conservation programs central to its mission since its inception. The Aquarium of the Pacific has also hosted otters since its earliest days. When it was founded in 1998, otters were not local to the immediate Southern California coastal area near Long Beach, due to the otter-free zone, though of course they were ecologically native to the area. The Aquarium of the Pacific immediately worked closely with MBA to host otters, offering housing and care for otters that could not live in the wild; this allowed the two institutions working together to care for more animals than MBA could alone. The Aquarium of the Pacific declared its first full summer in operation, 1999, to be “Sea Otter Summer,” with a full public relations blitz. Its charismatic otters were Monterey Bay transplants, young animals who were not suitable candidates for release into the wild and instead resided in the Aquarium of the Pacific’s Northern Pacific habitat (here Northern Pacific means essentially California and north, that is, the cooler water zone north of the warm-cold mixing in the ecotone that is the Southern California Bight). At least two of the otters were orphaned during El Niño storms in 1997 (rough water and wind can cause pups to get separated from mothers, and storms are a common cause of pup stranding).51 Given the timing, these young animals would not have been candidates for surrogacy, which did not begin until 2001. 

One of the Aquarium of the Pacific’s otters, a young female aptly named Summer, featured in a heartbreaking and frankly bizarre Los Angeles Times article that accompanied the exhibition: 

A little girl named Summer arrived in Long Beach last month with what sounds like a Hollywood crisis: a lousy fur coat, a weight problem and a dependency issue. Summer, an 11-month-old sea otter at the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific, also would be distressed to know she’s missing her spot in the limelight. This Saturday the aquarium will launch Sea Otter Summer, but the budding diva will be in rehab.52 

Distressing anthropomorphism and peculiar pathologizing aside, the article paints a vivid picture of the struggles stranded otters and their human caregivers can face. When rescued by MBA, Summer’s caregivers hoped to rehabilitate her for release into the wild, but over time, she failed to thrive: her coat did not come in with sufficient thickness to keep her afloat and warm, which was evident when human handlers took her on daily ocean swims as part of rehabilitation efforts. (Otters’ coats are dense, and pups’ fur actually helps them float because of how it traps air, which saves their bodies energy. The drive to commodify this lustrous fur is what led otters to be hunted to near extinction.53) Summer did not gain sufficient weight, probably because of being chilled. And her “addiction” to suckling towels was an unfortunate effect of her separation from her mother when she was only one week old.54 

Chloe the otter standing up, reaching toward her handler. Aquarium of the Pacific Virtual Otter Encounter, 2020. Screenshot by the author.

Aquarium curators laid out a comprehensive plan of care for Summer. Her towel suckling appeared to be a core cause of her failure to thrive. Without otters to care for pups, human handlers gave otter pups towels to suckle, cuddle, and groom themselves with, “a replacement for their moms.” Handlers suspected the enthusiasm with which Summer took to snuggling and suckling towels was actually damaging her fur; according to laboratory analysis of her pelt, the fibers were twisted and damaged. So in addition to continuing to trying to get her weight up through attentive feeding, caregivers weaned the pup off towels: she went from one per hour to two per day, with the goal of being able to comfortably give them up entirely. Her handler said: “The rewards of the job are similar to those of parenting[.] I enjoy the satisfaction of seeing the otters hit certain milestones. I also think it’s a responsible act. Summer couldn’t survive in the ocean, but she’s healthy. Why not give her a good life, while educating the public and us about how otters live so we can use the knowledge to help the environment?”55 

Summer lived another eleven years at the Aquarium of the Pacific, though she never fully recovered from the health issues she experienced as a pup. Aquarium staff tried to diagnose and cure Summer, unsuccessfully; veterinary dermapathologists suspected her fur and thermoregulation issues perhaps ultimately derived from an immune-mediated condition, similar to an autoimmune disease in humans.56 The causes of autoimmune disease are complex, but exposures to toxins are strong possibilities; effects of chemical violence are not necessarily immediate, even leading to epigenetic harms.57 In spite of Summer’s health problems, aquarium officials stated that she had led a “relatively healthy and apparently happy” life with her exhibit-mates at the Aquarium of the Pacific, until reaching a more advanced age when her health declined again, leading to compromised organ function. They determined that euthanasia was the most humane course, but Summer died on her own hours before the planned procedure, in September 2010.58 Twelve years is a somewhat shorter lifespan than might be expected for a female otter in captivity, though not dramatically so. Her loss was mourned by aquarium staff and caregivers, many of whom had known her since her arrival. 

Around the time of Summer’s death in 2010, the Aquarium of the Pacific opened a new animal care facility. The 14,000-square-foot facility was unusual in one main regard: it included a large room for veterinary exams open to the public (through a pane of glass). On most days, aquarium staff perform veterinary exams and medical procedures on aquarium animals, in public view, with either a staff interpreter out in front of the window or one inside who explains what staff are doing over a public address system for viewers outside. Simulations of veterinary procedures are on display even when the aquarium is closed. 

One day in September 2019, two otter dental procedures were listed on a whiteboard: a root canal for Betty, age seven, and a tooth extraction for Maggie, age seventeen.59 A curator said that there is treatment activity on public view at least a couple of days per week, and that the facility conducts nearly every procedure in public view (exceptions might be if no interpretive staff were available to narrate, or in case of a high-stakes procedure where the patient might be in danger of “crashing,” in which case blinds would be drawn). An adult sea otter would get at least one exam per year, including blood draws, x-rays, and an ultrasound, all during regular business hours in full public view.60 The aquarium holds around 11,000 animals (fish, reptiles, mammals, birds), so there is a lot of opportunity for routine exams that can double as public programming.61 While the Aquarium of the Pacific’s public viewing facility was novel at the time it was introduced, more and more facilities like it are being built; it is a trend that promotes public understanding of and transparency about the institution’s activities.62 (Though the curator did not spell this out, it also helps communicate to the public the expense associated with so much care for so many animals.) At the same time, the procedures with the aquarium’s actual living animals, and especially the use of plush children’s toys to stand in for wildlife, arguably domesticate these creatures, blurring boundaries. These spectacles also normalize “nature” in human care, or even on life support. Though managers act in pursuit of “autonomy” for wild animals, this state is “deferred and impossible to achieve,” requiring dependence (especially in the case of highly managed creatures at the edge of extinction).63 This has potential implications for how the aquarium’s audience relates to these animals in the aquarium as well as outside of it. 

Photo by Christina Dunbar-Hester, September 2019

As of 2020, the Aquarium of the Pacific could house up to six adult otters comfortably, but it was expanding its capacity in order to implement a surrogacy program. The agreement the Aquarium of the Pacific formalized with MBA in early 2020 solidified a commitment to create the conditions to be able to add as many as five adult females who could nurture and socialize pups. As many as ten to fifteen stranded southern sea otter pups are discovered annually in California, so this would add significant capacity for otter care. Like Summer, all stranded pups will first go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium for around eight weeks, and then some will move to Long Beach for longer-term rearing (six to seven months), learning to groom and feed and act like “regular” sea otters.64 If a pup does well with its surrogate mother in the Aquarium of the Pacific, it will return to MBA for another month or two to socialize with peers, and then, assuming it is deemed fit, it will be released into the wild. Released young adults will be radiotagged with VHF transmitters and trackable for up to three years; scientists will no longer be able to track the otters once the transmitters’ batteries die, though the tracking devices will remain in the animals for the rest of their lives. 

Sea otters come ashore rarely and can perform all essential life functions at sea, including sleeping and giving birth. Charismatic representations of them often feature a mother and pup afloat in a kelp bed.65 The otters of the Aquarium of the Pacific, as well as many other creatures, live in marine water that approximates their oceanic habitats. The aquarium’s water supply therefore is a life-sustaining consideration of major consequence for the institution and its residents. It is sourced from the harbor just outside the aquarium’s door, processed by a company that also supplies water to other aquariums and marine science facilities throughout the western United States and for which the Aquarium of the Pacific is a major customer. 

Founded in 1988, Catalina Water Company commodifies a naturally occurring substance, ocean water.66 In claiming water as a resource, processing it, and selling it, the company provides an environment to sustain ocean life in circumstances where it would not be found otherwise: in conditions of captivity and often in geographic locales far from the species’ native environments. Tropical fish in home or institutional aquariums, otters in conservation programs, jellyfish in veterinary care, and mollusks in neuroscience research settings may all find themselves swimming in this water (or, in the case of mollusks, anchored in it). Commodification of ocean water is driven by the commercial trade of tropical fish: “The aquarium hobby could never have become what it is today without the business interests that were, and still are, involved.”67 Recent estimates are that 25–30 million animals from more than 2,000 species are traded annually, including fish and corals; animals are imported from the Philippines, Indonesia, the Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Australia, Fiji, the Maldives, and Palau, especially richly biodiverse reef ecologies; and domestic fish outnumber pet cats and dogs in both the United States and United Kingdom.68 Most collectible animals are taken from the wild, and many marine species’ needs for breeding in captivity are poorly understood.69 Of course, this practice of removing animals from oceans for global hobbyist trade has ecological implications in their sites of origin. These accumulating environmental injuries are not the main focus here but bear notice as a significant effect of the commodification of marine life and seawater.70 

Unsurprisingly, supplying conditions for marine life, let alone healthy marine life, is challenging. The Aquarium of the Pacific’s water comes from the Pacific Ocean via Catalina Water Company, but another option for coastal aquariums is building a water intake system with pipes going out into the sea to take in and discharge water. (A curator at the Aquarium of the Pacific speculated that this would be hard to gain approval for in California’s present-day regulatory environment.71) Facilities that are not coastally located are more likely to manufacture their water, mixing salt and fresh water. Catalina Water Company touts its product by stating, “All synthetic salt mixtures have one thing in common. They are attempting to duplicate real saltwater. Catalina Water Company provides real ocean salt- water, not a synthetic substitute. Synthetic Saltwater, while being basically sound, simply can not provide all the subtle chemical benefits of true saltwater.” The volume of water that the company sells for simulated ocean environments is at least ten million gallons per year.72 The Aquarium of the Pacific is a major client and takes several deliveries per week; its biggest tank, as of 2012, was a 56,000-gallon quarantine tank, part of the Molina Care Center, a holding tank for large animals that need to be kept separately.73 Deliveries of fresh ocean water at the scale needed by aquariums are delivered via truck in food-grade stainless steel tankers. Catalina Water Company also sells packaged seawater for home aquarium use through the PetCo pet store chain.74 

Truck delivering Catalina Water Company seawater (“Real Ocean Water”) to laboratory at California State University, Northridge, 2016. Courtesy Mike Kaiser.

The quarantine tank leads toward a further consideration of the water itself. To become commodified, seawater must be processed. Catalina Water Company notes on its website that it “starts with natural ocean sea- water which is filtered, (fiber, sand, and charcoal) ozonated, and protein skimmed.”75 Before using the water for its marine life, the Aquarium of the Pacific also runs its own tests to make sure it is safe for the animals, and filters it again.76 The 1999 Los Angeles Times article about Summer the pup also offers details about how seriously the Aquarium of the Pacific takes its marine environment: “Before he climbs the metal ladder to the access door of Summer’s tank, [Summer’s handler] steps in two bins of liquid, one containing water and one a disinfectant. He’ll step in them again when he leaves. ‘We’re fussy about quarantine here,’ he explains. ‘I don’t want to take any germs into her habitat or out to the rest of the aquarium.’”77 Of course, extra precautions are indeed necessary for public health in congregate settings (as the COVID-19 pandemic recently showed when the virus cut a tragic, lethal, and preventable path through prisons and elder care facilities). 

But this attention to hygiene, water filtration, and monitoring in the aquarium setting exposes an irony. Otters and other life-forms under custodial care of the aquarium are provided cleaner and safer water than their counterparts in the wild. As noted at the outset of this chapter, worries of otter annihilation in the wake of an oil discharge prompted conservation efforts in the 1980s, leading to, among other developments, the otter relocation to San Nicolas Island. The rationale was not only to prompt the settlement of a new territory but to have a population reservoir in a more protected locale, less vulnerable to spills than the near-coastal area the otters inhabited. And spilled oil is not the only source of chemical harm for otters: industrial agricultural fertilizers and other contaminants wash into the ocean from land, bringing toxins that can sicken and even kill marine otters.78 Toxins should thus not be understood as mere “wayward molecules”: they are substances whose patterned presences in land, water, and bodies are indicative of particular political and economic relations.79


FOOTNOTES

35) Sterngold, “Long Beach.” His statement is about Long Beach generally but it fits the waterfront area well.

36) As of 2020, parts of the carousel and vestigial Pike games are on display at Looff ’ Lite- A- Line on Long Beach Boulevard.

37) The Queen Mary docked permanently in Long Beach in 1967. Th e Spruce Goose was housed there only from 1980– 92, but its dome remains and is currently used as Carnival Cruise Lines’ dockside cruise terminal.

38) Kopetman, “Spruce Goose to Be Moved.”

39) Addison, “Long Beach Lost.”

40) Various factors were responsible. Disney requested things the City of Long Beach was unable to deliver single- handedly, like highway modifi cations. Addison, “Long Beach Lost,” notes that Long Beach was hard to build in both politically and financially since local, state, and federal approvals were all required; Disney instead reinvested in and expanded its Anaheim (Orange County) operations.

41) Sterngold, “Long Beach.”

42) Johnson, “Long Beach, Calif., Gets a Boost.” Th e “tidelands grant” the state issued the city to develop the harbor stipulated that revenue from oil profi ts drilled from the Wilmington and Long Beach oil fi elds, located in the tidelands, be reinvested in the tidelands area (and overseen by the state).

43) Kingsley, “Aquarium of the Pacific Turns 20 Today.”

44) Young, “Zoos and Aquariums.”

45) Henson, “American Zoos,” 65, 70, 66.

46) Young, “Zoos and Aquariums”; Henson, “American Zoos,” 72.

47) Henson, “American Zoos,” 66; Braverman, Zooland.

48) Henson writes, “as ‘natural environments’ become more stressed through development and climate change, the line has become blurred between ex situ, orzoo- and aquarium-based, research and conservation and in situ, or field-based, biological research and conservation practice” (“American Zoos,” 66); see especially Braverman, Wild Life, for more on this troubled boundary.

49) Muka, “Conservation Constellations.”

50) The California or southern sea otter is classified as a subspecies of an otter whose range used to be the entire Pacific coast from Baja California to Alaska. It is now only found from about Point Conception, just north and west of Santa Barbara, to San Francisco; in other words, just north of the Southern California Bight into which San Pedro Bay is nestled.

51) Morris, “Long Beach Aquarium.”

52) Jameson, “She’s One Happy Pup.”

53) Further north in the Pacific Northwest, Russian traders established a sea otter fur trade with China in the mid- eighteenth century (Gibson, Otter Skins, Boston Ships, and China Goods). Otter hunting in fact drew Russians eastward fromSiberia. Spanish colonists in California did not initially recognize the value of otter pelts in “their” territories but soon also entered the otter fur trade with China, and these otters were members of the southern or California sea otter subspecies.

In both cases, Indigenous people also participated in these markets as hunters, though they oft en were resistant to hunting on the scale desired by merchants (Ogden, California Sea Otter Trade, 1784–1848, 43). Overhunting of otters is part of what pushed American maritime traders toward beavers in the nineteenth century (Gibson, Otter Skins, Boston Ships, and China Goods).

54) Jameson, “She’s One Happy Pup.”

55) Jameson. Th e journalist noted that the handler was himself a father of two, tying his parental duties with the otter to those with his human young.

56) Segura, “Long Beach Aquarium’s Beloved Otter Dies.” In humans, poisons like PCBs and dioxin have been detected in blood, breast milk, and urine (Murphy, “Alterlife,” 495).

57) Murphy invokes a stencil by Métis artist and activist Erin Marie Konsmo depicting lungs filled with transformer towers connecting to underground fracking, accompanied by the statement “Violence from Fracking [and Pipelines] is Violence on Our Bodies” (“Alterlife,” 500– 501). Though the image depicts human lungs, the statement fits animal bodies as well—though chemical violence is not limited to fossil fuels, of course. See also Fiske, “Naked in the Face of Contamination”; Tuana, “Viscous Porosity.”

58) Segura, “Long Beach Aquarium’s Beloved Otter Dies.”

59) Field notes, September 2019.

60) Aquarium of the Pacific curator, interview, December 7, 2020.

61) Aquarium of the Pacific, “Aquarium Animal Care.”

62) Aquarium of the Pacific curator, interview, December 7, 2020.

63) Parreñas, Decolonizing Extinction, 155; van Dooren, Flight Ways.

64) Aquarium of the Pacific curator, interview, December 7, 2020.

65) Mothers will even wrap pups in kelp to hold them in place and keep them afloat while they go off to forage (e.g. Kranking, “Floating through Life”).

66) The company is presumably named for the island that Spanish settlers dubbed Santa Catalina, one of the Channel Islands, just off shore from Los Angeles and Long Beach. It hosts tourism and marine research, and its rock is the source material for many modifications in San Pedro Bay.

67) Brunner, Ocean at Home, 140– 41.

68) Brunner, “Through a Glass Sadly.”

69) Brunner, Ocean at Home, 141. This is probably less a function of breeding being impossible to do and more that there is little profit motive to attempt it.

70) Brunner notes that only one in ten fi sh caught for aquarium trade survives the shipping and trade process and ends up in a hobby tank (“Through a Glass Sadly”). Toxic injury is also relevant here: Brunner adds that poisons are sometimes used in the water to numb or stun fish and make them easier to capture, and excess poison remains in the water after stunned fish are captured. The habitat effects call to mind Nixon’s description of “delayed destruction” (Slow Violence, 2; see also Neimanis, “‘Chemists’ War’”)

71) Aquarium of the Pacific curator, interview, December 7, 2020. The curator added that Monterey Bay Aquarium, built in the 1980s, has such a system.

72) Catalina Water Company, homepage.

73) Aquarium of the Pacific curator, interview, December 7, 2020; Aquarium of the Pacific, “Molina Animal Care Center.”

74) Catalina Water Company, homepage.

75) Catalina Water Company, homepage. Punctuation per original.

76) Aquarium of the Pacific curator, interview, December 7, 2020.

77) Jameson, “She’s One Happy Pup.”

78) Aquarium of the Pacific, “Sea Otter Conservation.” Parasites can also wash out
from land.

79) Liboiron, Pollution Is Colonialism, 82; Murphy, “Alterlife.”


SOURCES

Addison, Brian. “Long Beach Lost: The Dramatic Tale of the Disney Theme Park in Downtown.” Long Beach Post, December 4, 2018.

Aquarium of the Pacific. “Aquarium Animal Care.” Accessed December 5, 2020. https://www.aquariumofpacific.org/exhibits/animalcarecenter/animal_care.
—. “Molina Animal Care Center.” Accessed December 23, 2020.
https://www.aquariumofpacific.org/ exhibits/animalcarecenter.
—. “Sea Otter Conservation.” Accessed December 5, 2020.
https://www.aquariumofpacific.org/exhibits/otters/sea_otter_conservation.
—. “Sea Otter Habitat.” Accessed March 11, 2022.
https://www.aquariumofpacific.org/exhibits/otters/
—. “Southern Sea Otter.” Accessed December 5, 2020.
https://www.aquariumofpacific.org/exhibits/otters/southern _sea_otter.

Braverman, Irus. Wild Life: The Institution of Nature. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015.
—. Zooland: The Institution of Captivity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012.

Brunner, Bernd. The Ocean at Home. London: Reaktion Books, 2011.
—. “Th rough a Glass Sadly.” Aeon, November 30, 2015. https://aeon.co/essays/why-it-s-time-to-put-an-end-to-the-cult-of-the-aquarium.

Henson, Pamela M. “American Zoos: A Shift ing Balance between Recreation and Conservation.” In Th e Ark and Beyond: Th e Evolution of Zoo and Aquarium Conservation, ed. Ben Minteer, Jane Maienschein, and James P. Collins, 65–76. Chicago, University of Chicago Press: 2018.

Jameson, Marnell. “She’s One Happy Pup: A Young Otter Name [sic] Summer Once Faced Certain Death, but Today Is Safe, Warm and Getting a Good, if Soggy, Education.” Los Angeles Times, June 17, 1999.

Kingsley, Barbara. “Aquarium of the Pacific Turns 20 Today, Hopes to Make a Splash When Pacific Visions Opens in 2019.” Daily Breeze, June 15, 2018.

Kopetman, Roxana. “Spruce Goose to Be Moved to Oregon.” Los Angeles Times, July 10, 1992.

Morris, Asia. “Long Beach Aquarium Mourns the Loss of Brook the Sea Otter.” Long Beach Post, January 30, 2019.

Muka, Samantha. “Conservation Constellations: Aquariums in Aquatic Conservation Networks.” In The Ark and Beyond: The Evolution of Zoo and Aquarium Conservation, ed. Ben Minteer, Jane Maienschein, and James P. Collins, 90– 103. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018.

Sterngold, James. “Long Beach, in Los Angeles’ Shadow, Strives for a Spotlight.” New York Times, July 27, 2000, A14.

Christina Dunbar-Hester is a science and technology studies scholar and associate professor in the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication. She is the author of Low Power to the People: Pirates, Protest, and Politics in FM Radio Activism and Hacking Diversity: The Politics of Inclusion in Open Technology Cultures.

Interviews

Kinship and Cultural Resistance to Environmental Racism in Avocado Heights, California 

Kinship and Cultural Resistance to Environmental Racism in Avocado Heights, California 

On December 13, 2022, Quemetco, Inc. (also known as Ecobat), a battery smelter in City of Industry, California, agreed to pay $2.3 million in a civil settlement litigation brought on by the Department of Toxic and Substances Control (DTSC). Along with committing to infrastructural corrective measures and an acknowledgement of violations, Quemetco will distribute $1.5 million to DTSC in civil penalties and $575,000, split between two local environmental justice projects. While this is the largest settlement yet for Quemetco, it has a long history of neglect and contamination in San Gabriel Valley, California, and even globally. 

Quemetco, operating at this location since 1959 as Western Lead Producers, recovers lead from automobile batteries and other miscellaneous lead scrap materials. Currently processing over a million pounds of batteries per day (600 tons), it operates seven days per week, 24 hours per day, though the furnaces “may” operate 16-20 hours per day.1 Their chief pollutants are arsenic, lead, benzene, 1,3-butadiene, and nitrogen oxides (NOx); arsenic being the highest contributor to the health, degradation, and risk of the community.2 

Quemetco traces all the way to previous and infamous environmental disasters such as The Stringfellow Acid Pits.3 This toxic waste dump located in Jurupa Valley, California became the center of national news coverage in the early 1980s, when it was considered one of the most polluted sites in California and one of the origin cases in environmental justice discourse.4 During Stringfellow’s 16 years of operation, 34 million gallons (about 128703940 L) plus of liquid waste was deposited in evaporation ponds and between 1969 and 1980 poor weather and management resulted in several spills and intentional releases of toxic chemicals into local creeks and storm channels. It was found that Quemetco dumped the tenth largest volume of toxic waste at these acid pits. From 1956-72, under the name Western Lead Producers, Quemetco dumped one million gallons of toxic waste.5 

Text from United States v. Stringfellow, 661 F. Supp. 1053, 1061, 17 ELR 21134 (C.D. Cal. 1987), 11

For decades, ambient lead measurements in neighborhoods near Quemetco reflect levels far above the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) with the maximum individual cancer risks modeled at 33.4 ppm. Reports by the DTSC in 1992 and 2006, along with an independent CAC (Clean Air Coalition) and USC Department of Environmental Health surveys conducted in 2016 show on average that most residential houses within a two-mile radius harbor around 117 ppm.6 The highest concentration in Avocado Heights was 2,427 ppm.7  

Since 1991, Quemetco and state regulatory agencies knew 8 However, no cleanup was conducted as a result. DTSC “excoriated Quemetco in a 2014 memorandum,” writing how “more often than not, Quemetco is not in compliance with the provisions in their General Permit.9 A serial violator, Quemetco has also been issued with multiple violations over the years, for problems such as illegally storing hazardous waste and delaying rebuilds of eroding (corroding) infrastructure. 

Quemetco failed to comply with various conditions including a 2005 general permit.10 Since their 2013 draft report, DTSC has not approved of the plans to monitor gas, liquid, and surface water discharge. Reporter Daniel Ross in an article on Truthout writes, “The Department of Toxic Substances Control has fallen down badly on its job of protecting the public from toxic harm.” In 2014, DTSC representatives wrote, “Quemetco appears to have been consistently discharging elevated levels of lead” into the San Jose Creek, which runs contiguous with the plant. The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board issued letters in 2010 and 2015 stating they were “exceeding the benchmark values for lead, zinc, pH and specific conductance.” While soil and air pollution are serious matters, water is another level. The “EPA has set the maximum contaminant level goal for lead in drinking water at zero,” thus any violation concerning water poses an immediate and dire risk for public and environmental health.11 

Over the years, while the lead leakage diminished, emissions are regular. Arsenic, benzene, 1,3- butadiene, remain a constant. In fact, 1,3- butadiene appears to be increasing.12 Mitigation means little when it comes to contamination. With the arsenic plume of 2013 and all the other carcinogenic metals leaching into the soil, plants, animals, water, and air over the years, the damage is done. Arsenic and lead, among so many toxic metals, stay in the soil for thousands of years. 

Video of Quemetco: Courtesy of Avocado Heights Vaquer@s

Quemetco was also linked to the transportation of waste material to Exide in Vernon, California before its closure. Exide Technologies was one of two west coast battery smelters before it went bankrupt in 2020 due to the resistance efforts of East Yards Communities for Environmental Justice. Quemetco consistently denies affiliation with Exide, but a DTSC 2020 lawsuit reveals an irrefutable working relationship between Quemetco and Exide over at least twenty-seven years.13 Quemetco has a history of negligent and reckless behavior in arranging and transporting caustic material with lack of regard or concern for neighborhood residents. Coincidentally, Quemetco was in favor of Exide’s closure so that it could eliminate any competition.14 

Quemetco’s footprint not only affects local communities but has state, national, and global reach. All these batteries, despite Quemetco’s claims, arrive from local as well as international sources.15 Ecobat, their parent company, has extraction operations in South Africa and South America, with distribution centers and smelters in Europe. It is important to remember that the lead is made into ingots to be sold again. Quemetco is not a public service offering responsible recycling options for batteries. It is a multinational extraction-based business designed for profit.  

After three years of relative quiet, in 2022, Quemetco emerged with an application to expand their facility by 25 percent (from 600 tons to 750 tons of lead-material per day).16 In a neighboring unincorporated town, Avocado Heights, California, a group called Avocado Heights Vaquer@s (AHV) are fighting back. Avocado Heights, with 80 percent of the population from Mexico—most from Jalisco or Zacatecas—is a unique equestrian district in San Gabriel Valley with a community of parcels between a half-acre to an acre, containing lots large enough to have seven horses each and run small agricultural business. Until recently, Avocado Heights was working class, however, given the scarcity of large parcels within Los Angeles County they are constantly at war with developers hoping to flip properties, in combination with warehouses and manufacturing developments that are zealous to convert zoning ordinances. Yet even more horrifying, due to Avocado Height’s proximity to the City of Industry, environmental degradation, pollution, and contamination has adverse effects on the community as private and public surveys prove a higher frequency of respiratory problems such as asthma and rare cancer. 

(Red indicates 90-100 percentile [highest score], orange indicates 80-90 percentile, and yellow indicates 70-80 percentile. Click on a census tract to learn more about the CalEnviroScreen scores. CalEnviroScreen scores are calculated by the scores of Pollution Burden and Population Characteristics. CalEnviroScreen provides a report with detailed description of indicators and methodology and downloadable results available at CalEnviroScreen 4.0 website.)

Founded in January of 2022, AHV became a serious force within the region, not only fostering support and fighting the expansion of Quemetco, but joining regional coalitions to protect communities of color. Following the legacies of activists in the area who shut down the Exide battery recycling plant and the La Puente Landfill, AHV, “works towards the remediation, preservation, and expansion of air, waterway, and wildlife corridors that will serve our community and future generations as a network of vibrant uninterrupted ecosystems we can access and care for as environmental stewards.” They are organizers who believe that natural environmental spaces can coexist and thrive alongside equestrians, hikers, and cyclists, as educational community spaces for recreation. They are also members of the CAC and participate in other regional coalitions who are dedicated to shutting down Quemetco and fighting developers that want to convert agricultural and equestrian zoned parcels into manufacturing warehouses, reclamation facilities, and industries. 

One of the founding members of AHV joins Boom California to discuss the connections between cultural sovereignty, environmental racism, and activism. As with many disruptive environmental justice efforts across California, AHV members face serious legal and personal threats, thus the interviewee will remain anonymous.  


Boom 

Can you tell us a bit about Avocado Heights and what makes it unique? 

AHV 

What makes Avocado Heights unique is its rural aspect, and that it has an equestrian culture. It is past East LA, in the San Gabriel Valley, not too far from Los Angeles, in a suburban and industrial area. Even though we’re surrounded by lots of factories, the neighborhood is small and feels tightknit. You’ll walk your dog or go on a stroll and see people on horses, people walking ponies, or training little foals. There are even goats and chickens and roosters here. It’s beautiful, in that sense. 

Close ties between neighbors and friends make this the closest thing to a pueblo I’ve experienced. Each day I am reminded why spaces like this are important. These are spaces reminiscent of the rancherias in rural Mexico where a freshly groomed horse and polished leather saddle still carry cachet among locals–where a rag tag group of teens on borrowed horses meander aimlessly stringing along stories to keep entertained. 

Strolls in Avocado Heights become visits, usually there’s an invitation to share a beer and catch up. It’s the place where a lazy Sunday quickly transforms into an impromptu outdoor picnic with friends who might be fully engrossed in a volleyball tournament or karaoke duel. The park is our zocalo (the Jardin minus the kiosk). Our equestrian arena with white picket fence attracts throngs of spectators. Kids battle it out shooting hoops while an elotero takes a moment to rest before making another round past the baseball diamond which also doubles as a soccer field.  

Kelly, Howard D, “Avocado Heights, 4th Avenue and 3rd Avenue, looking northeast,” 1955, Los Angeles Public Library

Young couples walk towards the edge of the park before lounging for hours on the sloped hill. A group of friends enjoy mariscos from the lonchera fresh off a shift at one of the thousands of warehouses in the City of Industry and ruminate on the adventures that await them. Further off in the distance, admirers narrate which horses they like best and make note of which maneuvers impress them most. Nearby, a washed-up gangster lays flat across the grass and he’s coming off a bender. You recognize him a little, he was someone you went to middle school with. 

Sometimes you’ll hear folks refer to this place as North Whittier, Bassett, or La Puente. But for most of us, we prefer Avocado Heights after the massive avocado orchards that were first planted in the 1910’s when this tract was being billed to investors from Los Angeles as a lucrative investment. The area was called la Fortuna Farms, hoping this would generate interest and entice buyers. The land was later acquired by Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, a creditor who acquired the land as collateral after the markets crashed in the 1870s which drove previous landowning family patriarch William Workman to commit suicide.  

Boom  

Can you explain further what it means to be an equestrian district in Avocado Heights? 

AHV 

There are two parks in the community. One gets more use because of the skatepark. But the other park, Avocado Heights Park, is also a central hub, where all the vaqueros and vaqueras congregate. And on the weekends, or around special holidays, you’ll hear music. Hundreds of people will gather. You see people selling various products specific to the region. So, I think the equestrian aspect, it’s important for the community and the environment as well.  

The park is especially nice during the subtle chill of pre-Santa Ana winds, where you might find a horse steaming from its sweat as the charros lasso large circles above and around them. They intricately weave ritualistic patterns with the riata while a team of escaramuzas inside the round metal pen gallop diagonally towards each other in a circle before executing a full 180 and dispersing in such quick succession that the floating dust still hangs along the wind.  

We’re near the Avocado Heights equestrian trail which connects with the San Jose Creek trail. We could connect on horseback all the way to Azusa, down towards the beach, or hit the Puente Hills and ride towards Chino Hills. A lot of vaqueros and vaqueras will go horse-riding throughout the week, but especially on the weekends, they’ll do the trail rides. It’s so important that we’re mindful and conscious of the environment because it directly impacts everyone in the community. At this juncture, we’re interested in expanding public access to wildlife corridors or greenways, improving multi-use trails in our communities, and shaping development projects to offset adverse environmental impacts and to work towards a more resilient ecological system locally. 

(Yellow line indicates LA County DPR Trails. Click on the trail to discover information on trail use and access)

Boom  

You have illustrated how the story of avocado heights is a story of land. Between today and the evolution of Avocado Heights into Anglo-American settler history, rampant development and the encroachment of manufacturing facilities advanced in the 1970s, a period in which Avocado Heights increasingly faced serious threats to its cultural sovereignty and environment. In 1982, Benjamin Chavis coined the term “environmental racism” to signify the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities. Do you think this is an appropriate term to apply to Avocado Heights and if so, would you elaborate on the scale of the issue? 

AHV 

I think that is an appropriate term. This past winter, a developer was in escrow with a private Christian university that goes by the name: Latin American Bible Institute. They were trying to sell to this developer who was going to build storage units or an industrial manufacturing warehouse. We got activated and we came together. We were loud. We’re like, “No! We will not be okay with this!” It’s something that has affected the community and continues to do so.  

Ever since we were children, nearby, there was a the La Puente Landfill. Avocado Heights is really close to City of Industry, La Puente, Bassett and North Whittier, which allowed for established coalitions, like Clean Air Coalition, to help put a stop to the landfill which significantly polluted the environment. People, members of that organization, also fought against the Athens Waste Facility: A big trash processing company near Valley Blvd. Because of them, and the City of Industry, there are a lot of big rigs. There is a lot of traffic and congestion in that area. The City of Industry has a plastic factory and companies like Goya, which you can smell, and which populate the neighborhood with their big rigs. Think of all the carbon and air pollution they emit. Then you consider the ambient, heavy metals they produce. These metals leech into our waterways and bed into our soil. This water is for drinking. Plants and animals depend on this water. The metals remain in the soil for thousands of years. All this industry, and the freeways, grip the borders of our unincorporated town. 

But our current and greatest antagonist, in my opinion, is Quemetco, which now goes by Ecobat. Quemetco has been around for decades operating as an extraordinarily reckless toxic battery recycling facility. Quemetco’s contaminating our air, soil, our water, releasing harmful chemicals into our environment, such as lead, arsenic, benzene, cadmium, and other heavy metals. But it’s a powerful multinational corperation with millions, if not billions of dollars, so they’re very good at covering their tracks or paying fees. They’ve made it abundantly clear that they don’t really care about our community. Why would they? They’re profiting, they have their business, and they don’t have our best interests at heart. Aside from a few postcards in the mail, they reach out to other commercial zones, like Hope City, to buffer their optics.  

They’re not going to do things like comprehensive soil sampling, which is why we must work hard, even though we’re a small collective. I’d say everyone is really dedicated, and we’re working with other people who are like-minded. We work with Clean Air Coalition or Active SGV or other environmental organizations that care about public health and want to fight against environmental racism. 

Boom 

Considering that you participate in several local coalitions, what do you think defines Avocado Heights Vaquer@s, differentiates it from these other groups? 

AHV 

A few things. Number one, in Avocado Heights, there hadn’t been organizing to the degree in which we do it. There are a lot of environmental and social justice groups in the San Gabriel Valley. There are some in La Puente and even Hacienda Heights. I don’t want to generalize, but some of them are very hierarchical or they’re not focused on meeting the needs of their community. There hadn’t been an organization in Avocado Heights, except the Clean Air Coalition. But that still wasn’t entirely representative of Avocado Heights itself, given that their base was in North Whittier. Their aims, while aligned with ours in many ways, differ. 

What makes Avocado Heights Vaquer@s different is the focus on family, or kinship, in our neighborhood. That’s what remains so special about our community. We help each other out. You see a neighbor in need, and you come. I was struggling another day with a horse, freaking out because the horse was stuck, and someone nearby came and helped me out. You see that here. In certain other neighborhoods you don’t. There’s a genuine authenticity, and I think that is part of it too, that cultural aspect where people from small little communities in Mexico bring these common traditions and customs to Avocado Heights. It’s a place where people who are from Mexico can come and feel comfortable. They’re like, “Oh, yeah, hey, this is how we do it in my pueblo!” 

Our family helps us out. If we are throwing an event, they’ll be there as much as possible, and they will support us. And I think that’s very special. We’re not a nonprofit. We don’t get money. We don’t have all the resources that a lot of other organizations have.  

Courtesy of Avocado Heights Vaquer@s

Boom  

Do you think there’s some part of the vaquero and vaquera culture that allows you to be unique stewards of the land, one that offers a new approach to environmentalism? 

AHV 

Organizing should also be fun as well as rigorous because otherwise people burn out and can get tired of always having to protest. Aside from that, I think nowadays, because of global warming and activism and social media, there’s this consciousness of: “We got to protect our environment. We got to get involved.” I hate to use the word trendy, it’s not a good word to use to describe caring about the environment, but in a way, it is. Certain people have cared about the environment for many, many generations before it’s become a hashtag. 

And part of it starts with our family, starts with your ancestors, starts with your traditions. I know when I go to indigenous spaces such as powwows, there’s an acknowledgment of Mother Earth. When it comes to land, our practice is to not take more than what you need. The honorable harvest: if you take something you give back. You use every single part of the animal because nothing should be wasted. In parts of Mexico, where my mom’s from, it’s that same kind of consciousness. It’s not like the way we think of environmentalism now. We are really paying attention to the stories, anecdotes, and wisdom of my mom’s teaching, or my grandmother’s. They were always mindful of the land. It was natural. That’s how they grew up.  

Boom  

Are there certain goals that AHV are attempting to achieve in the near or distant future, or is it more a processual, reactive type of process?  

AHV 

I think it’s both. Part of it is that we absorb ourselves in projects that really call our attention or that we see commonalities. We consider whether it is an issue that a neighboring community resonates with us. We’ve talked to people who’ve done soil sampling before—such as with East Yards and their fight to shutdown Exide—people who already have this wisdom. And we’ve also worked with the Coalition Against Lennar fighting the developer mentioned before, because it’s about public land. They’re taking away land to build condos. 

We are a little reactionary, but in the long term we are just making sure that we protect our community, protect our neighborhood. We want to see more green spaces and spaces that are good for our environment, youth, and animals. 

  Ultimately, and I know this is going to be hard, but we need to shut down Quemetco. It’s sad that it’s still around and it’s so harmful, and if it’s still there, it’s going to continue polluting our community even if they say, “Oh, we’re adding this filter… or over-monitoring… or a little lead is not that bad…” NO! Any quantity of lead is too much. Our health is in serious jeopardy because of it. But there are other factories involved. It’s all connected. I think Quemetco is a big one that we obviously must address, but there are other factories. 

Boom  

Lastly, is this an open group? If not, what are the ways that people (who are interested or believe in this type of cause or form of justice) within the area can either join, participate, or support the organization? 

AHV 

Yeah, so that’s interesting. It’s something that we reflected on in our last meeting. At first, I think we always saw ourselves as an open group. We don’t want to be exclusive. But we had to reevaluate. Of course, it’s still open in the sense that we want to have support our actions and public-facing events. We need this form of support and solidarity. That’s the crucial thing about doing coalition-building. Through social media networking nowadays or supporting other groups, they’ll turn around and support you.  

  There’s nothing wrong with just being a little bit smaller, too. We don’t need a lot of people. The agency and identity, and even sovereignty, of our group is important to remember and value as well. The people brought in from the outside can jeopardize the core and spirit of the group. If someone is really interested, of course, we’re not going to turn them away. But I think what’s important is just having people who you can rely on and trust because it’s not a small endeavor going against big companies and companies that have lots of well-paid lawyers. There is also a community, real people, and specific culture at stake. It’s kind of scary because we have to be careful as much as we have to fight. 


SOURCES

1) South Coast AQMD, “Quemetco,” date accessed January 18, 2023,
http://www.aqmd.gov/home/news-events/community-investigations/quemetco

2) Ibid & Lisa Fuhrmann, Quemetco’s Lead Legacy: A Cycle of Injustice and Contamination in
Southern California, EarthJustice, January 27, 2021

3) George Ramos, “Report Urges Firms Be Held Liable for Cleaning Stringfellow Acid Pits,” Los
Angeles Times, September 24, 1986

4) Tracy E. Perkins, The Evolution of a Movement: Four Decades of California Environmental
Justice Activism, (Oakland, California: UC Press, 2022), 26.

5) United States v. Stringfellow, 661 F. Supp. 1053, 1061, 17 ELR 21134 (C.D. Cal. 1987), 11

6) Jill Johnston, Soil Sampling Data near Quemetco Battery Recycling, City of Industry, CA, USC
Department of Preventive Medicine, July 2016

7) Scott M. Lesch, et al, Final Report: Statistical Modeling and Analysis Results for Topsoil Lead
Contamination Study (Quemetco Project), University of California Riverside, January 28, 2006
& Nancy L. C. Steele, Off-site Sampling Report in the Vicinity of Quemetco Inc. December 1991
& Jill Johnston, Soil Sampling Data near Quemetco Battery Recycling, City of Industry, CA,
USC Department of Preventive Medicine, July 2016

8) Nancy L. C. Steele, Off-site Sampling Report in the Vicinity of Quemetco Inc. December 1991

9) Daniel Ross, “Lax Regulatory Enforcement Leaves Thousands at Risk of Lead Poisoning in
California,” Truthout, November 22, 2015

10) Ibid

11) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Lead in Drinking Water,”
https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/prevention/sources/water.htm#:~:text=EPA%20has%20set%20th
e%20maximum,in%20the%20body%20over%20time, accessed January 18, 2023

12) South Coast AQMD, “Quemetco,” date accessed January 18, 2023,
http://www.aqmd.gov/home/news-events/community-investigations/quemetco

13) Cal. Dep’t of Toxic Substances Control v. NL Indus., 2:20-11293-SVW (JPR) (C.D. Cal. Jan.
31, 2022)

14) mark! Lopez of East Yards Communities for Environmental Justice in a talk given to local
organizers in San Gabriel Valley, February 2012

15) Ecobat, “Our Business,” Ecobat.com, https://ecobat.com/our-business/, accessed January 18,
2023

16) Fuhrmann, Quemetco’s Lead, January 27, 2021

[For full disclosure, previous editors and SEMAP co-directors Romeo Guzmán and Carribean Fragoza as well as graduate editorial assistant Daniel Talamantes have a continuing relationship with AHV and support their efforts as well as attend their events.] 

Excerpts

Evolution of a Movement

Kettleman City: Case Study of Community Activism in Changing Times

Excerpted from Evolution of a Movement: Four Decades of California Environmental Justice Activism by Tracy Perkins, published by the University of California Press. © 2022 by Tracy Perkins. 

Many Californians who recognize the name “Kettleman City” do so because it is a good place to stop for gas and a snack on the long drive between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, passing through the Central Valley’s agricultural landscape. But some Californians recognize the name of the tiny town (population 1,439) because it played the David to the Goliath of Waste Management, the country’s largest waste company.[1]

Kettleman City, like so many other poor communities of color, was a prime target for a hazardous waste landfill. The town’s demographics are comparable to many other places that host hazardous waste facilities: 100 percent of the community is Latinx; 57.5 percent of residents over age twenty-five have less than a ninth-grade education; and the average per capita income is $15,656 per year.[2] Kettleman City hosts one of three Class 1 landfills in California (all three are located in or near predominantly Latinx communities), and the community’s opinion was not sought when the landfill was sited. Indeed, residents did not even know about the dump until after it had been permitted and built in 1979. But when a hazardous waste incinerator was proposed on the dump site, the residents made their opposition known, loud and clear. The fight in the late 1980s and early 1990s against the incinerator at the Kettleman City landfill was a paradigmatic early case in the environmental justice movement.[3]

This chapter traces the thirty-plus-year history of environmental justice activism in Kettleman City as a case study within the broader evolution of environmental justice activism. This case study exemplifies the broader trends discussed in chapters 2 and 3 and analyzes how these trends played out on the ground. The Kettleman City story is an early environmental justice success, preventing the construction of a new “locally unwanted land use”—here, an incinerator. These successes added up in town after town; only three of the seventy-five or more new or expanded incinerators proposed since the 1980s were ever built.[4] However, Kettleman City’s example also shows how these successes, as important as they are, could not on their own address existing unwanted land uses or the effect of multiple sources of contamination in one location. And these successes left other problems in their wake: the challenge of sustaining broad levels of local activism after the immediate threat ended made it difficult to address the broader structural conditions of capitalism that disproportionately locate pollution in low-income communities and communities of color and that constrain efforts to change the status quo.

The case of Kettleman City shows the unevenness of the environmental justice movement’s transition from “protest” to “politics.” Many in the environmental justice movement have used the limitations of fighting individual, defensive battles site by site as a reason to scale up into state-wide policy advocacy and collaborative work with state agencies. Others have ventured into efforts to build gardens, parks, and other environmental amenities, some of which pursue a DIY model that eschews state involvement. But in Kettleman City, much environmental justice activism remains true to its roots: focused on local sources of polluting health threats and engaged in continued confrontations with industry and state agencies. Of course, Kettleman City activists are also influenced by the broader trends described in chapters 2 and 3: changing racial politics and industrial public relations efforts, pressure to collaborate with state agencies, the opportunities and challenges of increasingly relying on philanthropically funded nonprofit structures to support activism, and the normalization of risk from the nearby hazardous waste landfill. They also face the challenge of pursuing activism within the context of neoliberal policies under capitalism, which mitigate against increasing environmental enforcement budgets and channel environmental activism toward voluntary and market-based (rather than regulatory) measures to contain industry pollution.

In Kettleman City, we can also see the fissures in the movement caused by the disagreement over tactics. The town hosted the first meeting of the newly formed California Environmental Justice Coalition, which was formed as an alternative to the better-funded, exclusive California Environmental Justice Alliance. Finally, in the face of skepticism about the value of participating on government advisory committees and improving the public’s ability to participate fairly in environmental decision-making, Kettleman City’s difficult history accessing environmental decision-making also shows why activists worked toward these goals in the first place.

Rey Leon (with megaphone), Linda McKay (with sign, in front), and other activists marching with Kettleman City residents protesting a birth defect cluster and planned expansion of the Chemical Waste Management hazardous waste landfill, Kettleman City, July 18, 2009. Photo by author.

The Anti-incinerator Campaign

In the late 1970s, Chemical Waste Management, Inc. (a subsidiary of Waste Management Inc.) built a hazardous waste landfill 3.5 miles away from Kettleman City on land formerly used to store waste mud from nearby oil drilling. As a Class 1 landfill, the facility is authorized to take almost any hazardous substance up to, but excluding, radioactive waste. It is the largest hazardous waste landfill west of the Mississippi. In the 1980s, Chemical Waste began the permitting process to add a hazardous waste incinerator to the existing landfill. The incinerator would burn hazardous waste instead of landfilling it. According to the waste management industry, the push toward incinerators in the 1980s was a response to a national crisis of landfills running out of room for new waste. (However, as David Pellow, Kenneth Gould, and others have written, the “crisis” had other origins, including that the public increasingly did not want to live near them, and industry was blocking or shuttering recycling initiatives.)[5] These incinerators would add dangerous toxins to the air, and the proposed incinerator sites were disproportionately in low-income communities and communities of color, such as Kettleman City.[6]

Many residents of Kettleman City did not even know about the existing hazardous waste landfill just outside of town, where it is not easily visible from the road. Residents did not discover its presence until after it was built—some in 1985, when the dump was fined for operating unauthorized waste ponds, and some not until they learned about the incinerator proposal a few years later.[7] Maricela Mares Alatorre, daughter of activists Mary Lou and Ramon Mares, remembers that her family and neighbors had no idea that the dump existed, or that a hazardous waste incinerator was proposed to be added to it, until Greenpeace organizer Bradley Angel knocked on her door while recruiting residents to attend an upcoming permitting hearing. The hearings, however, were not easy to participate in:

When we started attending these meetings, we noticed that they were never in town, they were usually in the middle of the day, 45 miles away, where they weren’t really accessible to people. And if you could get there, they didn’t translate them into Spanish when most of the town speaks Spanish. And we started finding out that there was a pattern to the way these things happen. We started researching the company. We were informed about the Cerrell Report. It was a 1984 document, which was commissioned by the California Waste Management Board where they said how you should choose a town for these kinds of projects. And we found out that they were going around choosing towns that had a large minority population, where people didn’t speak English, large immigrant populations, low education, and Catholic.[8] That was actually in the report: Catholic. And we were—we were shocked because we really had no idea. I had no idea that environmental racism existed until we were made aware of that document. And it’s like you don’t want to have to go to a meeting. You don’t want to have to, you know, spend all your time in these boring hearings, and sometimes you don’t understand what they’re saying. But it makes you mad when we saw the pattern. And we talked to people from other towns, and we started networking, and we saw how they deliberately chose people like us to do these things to. It makes you mad.[9]

Mares Alatorre’s story is a common one in communities fighting incinerators and other waste facilities in the 1980s and 1990s. As people across the country learned that toxic industries were being located in politically vulnerable communities, residents faced off with local government officials and industry representatives (who appeared to march in lockstep), resorting to disruptive political tactics when their pleas to government officials fell on deaf ears. In Kettleman City, residents, concerned about the threat to their health, formed a grassroots group to tackle the problem: El Pueblo para el Aire y Agua Limpio (People for Clean Air and Water). Mary Lou and Ramon Mares, and Esperanza and Joe Maya, among others, took leadership roles. Some of El Pueblo’s members brought in prior experience with farmworker organizing in the United Farm Workers of America to El Pueblo, while for others El Pueblo was their first experience with organizing.[10]

Like many other groups nationwide, El Pueblo pursued local, direct action and community organizing strategies. However, it was unique in having early access to a lawyer, Luke Cole at California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), who used the case as a test for the use of civil rights law to address pollution in communities of color.[11] The organization also had the support of organizers from the large environmental group Greenpeace, which (unlike many other large national and international environmental organizations) embraced direct-action tactics and at the time, at least on the West Coast, invested in local antitoxics and environmental justice organizing. In addition to their work with Greenpeace and CRLA, activists also attracted support from the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, Las Madres del Este de Los Angeles, Citizen Action, Rev. Jesse Jackson, a UC Berkeley student group (Nindakin: People of Color for Environmental Justice), and a wide array of others.[12]

One of the most iconic moments in the campaign occurred at a 1988 public hearing about the toxic waste incinerator proposal. By the time this hearing took place, residents had lost faith in both state and industry officials and came prepared to confront them:

So, before this meeting, I’m at my home, and we said, “Well, whenever we don’t like something, we’re going to have to let them know.” All their same lies. So, I made hundreds of copies of this piece of paper with the word “NO” real bold on it. It’s just that, “NO.” I said, when we don’t like something, we’re going to scream “No!” So, we all had those with us.

The circumstances of the hearing underscored how Kettleman City residents were being excluded from the normal process of government decision-making. Like other hearings, this one was not in Kettleman City but in the county seat in Hanford, thirty miles away. Although it was held in the winter, the hearing was not scheduled for one of the comfortable, well-heated spaces available in town such as the high school auditorium. Rather, the hearing was held in the County Fairground building, a building about the size of a football field that was, as one resident told me, “an exhibit barn for arts and crafts, or your animals or whatever. One of those big galvanized buildings made out of sheet metal or something. It’s cold. Cement floor.” The planning commission sat elevated at the front of the room, with portable heaters at their feet and hot coffee on their table. Open space, microphones, and then about fifty rows of seats lay before them, followed by bleachers. Behind the bleachers, there was empty concrete that stretched until the end of the building.[13]

Kettleman City street signs, July 18, 2009. General Petroleum Avenue and Standard Oil Avenue are two of the main roads running through the residential part of Kettleman City.  Photo by author.

Luke Cole and Sheila Foster describe provisions made for Spanish- speaking residents as follows:

Kettleman City residents showed up at the meeting in force. About 200 people came by bus and carpool from Kettleman City, and, as one of their leaders made clear, “We’re here, we want to testify on this project, and we brought our own translator.” The chair of the Kings County Planning Commission looked down on the crowd and said, “That request has been denied. The translation is taking place in the back of the room and it won’t happen up here.” Residents looked at where the Planning Commissioner was pointing: they looked from the Planning Commission up on their dais, they looked at the open space and the microphones, they looked at all the rows of chairs, and they looked at the bleachers. And then they looked way back behind the bleachers, nearly at the rear of the room, where there was one forlorn man sitting surrounded by a little circle of about twenty-five empty chairs. The Planning Commission chair said again, “Why don’t you go back there? There are monitors back there. We are all in the same room.”[14]

Kettleman City residents had come prepared to press their cause, and this arrangement did not suit them at all. One activist describes what happened at the meeting as follows:

It was supposed to be open all day for people that wanted to go and say whether they’re for [the incinerator], against it, or have questions for the supervisors. And we had a certain time we were supposed to be there. We were bused over there. Some people took their cars, and some people went on their own, but when we got there, they didn’t let us speak ’til about 9:00 or 10:00 that evening. They let other people speak first that should have spoke during the day. They were getting us to be tired so we would just go home, you know, and leave them alone. Then they didn’t have the translators they were supposed to have had. They had some translators. We asked for the translators and then they said, “Well, the translators are going to be in the back of the building. Go to the back.” They told us to go in the back! Go to the back of the room for the translators. And we all went, “No!” You know, “You bring the translators to us when we’re up there speaking!” So we go, “No!” And then we said, “Adelante!” and we all went forward with our “No! No!” “We’re not going to go to the back of the room!” . . . And they were shocked that we did that. Why would they send us to the back of the room? That’s discrimination there in itself. So, they didn’t have translators, and it was just waiting for somebody to do something wrong, to jump on us, to fight with us. You couldn’t even go to the bathroom, ’cause they were waiting for you in there to do something, the Chem Waste employees. It was just really, really bad.

Negative encounters like these, in which state decision-makers and industry representatives blatantly disrespected residents, drew more people into the fight, as this early incinerator opponent describes:

When the people that needed the translation started understanding what they were trying to do to them and how they were being disrespected, that made them more active. So that’s how we got more people to get into the fight for the incinerator.

Another iconic moment of disruption took place later in the campaign, the day before another hearing, when activists blockaded the entryway to the landfill with an old school bus and chained themselves to its axle. An activist who had been part of a successful campaign to oppose the construction of another incinerator in nearby Alpaugh helped out in Kettleman City. Greenpeace stored the bus on her property until it was needed and used her home as a planning area for the demonstration. She describes the opportunity to have supporters from out of town staying with her as a strange but wonderful experience. A Kettleman City resident who also hosted out-of-town supporters had a similar experience:

One time I housed a lot of people from Greenpeace at my house. They were at my house for almost two weeks, and they camped in my backyard. They came to canvas. I didn’t even know what that word meant.   But I remember seeing them coming in with money in the evening. I didn’t even know what was going on. We were so green to all this. So I was asked if I could house them and I said, “Yeah.” Well, they all came over to help us and I don’t even know who they were. And I remember that I used to cook for them. They would not eat meat, so I would cook a big pot of pinto beans every day, and they would eat the whole damn pot—[laughter]—of beans and salsa. I always had that, and I don’t know who furnished the pasta, but they always had big bags of pasta and I would cook the pasta. And they stayed at my house for that long. The posters were made in my backyard. The canvas banners were done there. I housed a lot of people throughout the years in my home—strangers, you know? Strangers because I never seen them before, but they came to help. I didn’t even know what the organization Greenpeace was, or who they were, who Bradley [Angel] was, you know? But I learned throughout the years.

During this period, environmental justice activism felt like it was becoming a national mass movement, with Kettleman City as one of many hot spots. In addition to the student activists and others brought by Greenpeace, residents from other affected communities such as San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point, East Los Angeles, and Alpaugh visited Kettleman City to lend their support. One Kettleman City activist remembers those days fondly:

I think all of it was a high point. I was really amazed that people outside Kettleman City actually cared for us, what happened to us. We started networking and all these people came to our aid. Who were they? Why did they care? We couldn’t understand that. Like Bradley [Angel] and his organizations, and Luke Cole with the lawyers. Why did they care? We’re just a poor Hispanic migrant little town, you know? But they knew more of what Chem Waste was doing. We were not the only site in the United States. We found out later that there were other dumpsites, and that they have the same pattern [of locating dumps in politically disadvantaged communities] throughout.

Kettleman City activists returned the favor, giving their support to people elsewhere and strengthening the emerging network of grassroots environmental justice activists. They went to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., in 1991, which helped bring together people facing similar problems across the country. They traveled to Los Angeles and other California locations, as well as New York, Alabama, and the town of Playas de Rosarito, ten miles south of the US-Mexico border. These visits were not just to provide moral support, but to share tactics and information about their common corporate opponents. The meetings laid bare the lies that Chemical Waste was telling on each side. For example, the residents of Playas de Rosarito had been told that the people of Kettleman City were supportive of the incinerator proposal—a lie that Kettleman City residents quickly debunked when they met. The Mexican residents had wanted to come see the landfill in Kettleman City as they considered their options but were told no by Chemical Waste; at the same time, Chemical Waste was telling Kettleman City residents that they could come see the landfill anytime, because the company had nothing to hide. The Kettleman City activists therefore planned a visit to the dump without mentioning to Chemical Waste that they would be accompanied by several busloads of Mexican residents from Playas de Rosarito and local press. The Mexican visitors returned home and successfully blocked the building of the incinerator proposed for their town.

As Kettleman City residents met activists from elsewhere, many developed broader political critiques about waste infrastructure writ large, broadening their opposition beyond the early “not in my back- yard” beliefs. Mary Lou Mares shared the following:

We started going to statewide conferences and meeting other people who were fighting other terrible stuff. There was Stormy Williams, she was fighting in the Mojave Desert. Everybody says, “Why can’t you put this incinerator in the desert or somewhere where people don’t . . . ?” And she would get up and say, “Wait a minute, I live in the desert!” [Laughter] At first, you are so ignorant that it’s easy to say, “Put it in the desert,” but you start meeting people and you start understanding that there is no place to put an incinerator because the air belongs to everybody and it has currents and it goes around and comes around. You just cannot put anything into the air.[15]

Despite the efforts by Kettleman City residents and allies, the Kings County Planning Commission nevertheless voted to approve the incinerator construction. Kettleman City is an unincorporated community, which means the people have no local governance structure of their own but rather are governed from a distance by a county board of supervisors, located forty miles away in the whiter and more affluent county seat of Hanford (where the public hearings took place). At that time, Kettleman City had little representation on the Planning Commission, which was mostly made up of people who did not live near the dump. The county stood to increase its revenues through taxing the landfill operators (although, as Kettleman City residents complained, precious few of those resources were reinvested in Kettleman City itself—an example of how racial capitalism functions at the county level).

Maricela Mares Alatorre and thirteen-year old son Miguel Alatorre at a protest in front of the Chemical Waste Management hazardous waste landfill, Kettleman City, November 16, 2007. Photo by author.

El Pueblo appealed the decision to the Kings County Board of Supervisors, who upheld the incinerator approval. El Pueblo and its legal supporters at CRLA filed a class-action lawsuit against Kings County in 1991. In 1992, a superior court judge overturned the Kings County approval of the incinerator, ruling that it was based on an inadequate environmental impact report and that the public permitting process had failed to meaningfully involve the local population, since residents in the predominantly Spanish-speaking town had received the relevant documents only in English. Chemical Waste Management filed an appeal, but then withdrew the incinerator application in 1993. One activist describes the immense relief she and her friend felt after winning the protracted campaign:

[My friend] and I just cried and cried the day we got the announcement. The reporter came first to my house, saying, “Tell us what you’re doing, what’s your next this and that, your next strategy,” and then along came the general manager of Chem Waste and he comes up to us and he says, “It’s over. The lawsuit, it’s over. We’re withdrawing the plan to put in the incinerator.” I said, “What?!” He said that they are not doing the incinerator. “Oh, I gotta go see [my friend]!” And I go to [my friend’s house] and we just hugged and cried and cried. It was [many] years of struggle, you know, it was great. It was so good.

Kettleman City’s fight against the incinerator was often framed as an epic David versus Goliath battle between the largest waste management company in the country and a tiny, low-income Latinx community in a largely forgotten part of California. The activists’ victory became a symbol of the movement’s vitality and potential.[16] It also inspired environmental justice activists across the country. The Kettleman City residents’ visits to and from other communities confronting similar problems helped activists see the bigger picture, that this was not a local but a systemic problem. This campaign thus helped nurture the broader environmental justice movement, both in California and the nation.

End of excerpt from chapter four. For the rest of this chapter, see the complete book, available at University of California Press and elsewhere.


Footnotes

[1] The landfill is managed by Chemical Waste Management, Inc., a subsidiary of Waste Management. Speakers use variations of both names (Chemical Waste, Chem Waste, and Waste Management), usually to refer to the local managers of the landfill.

[2] US Bureau of the Census, “ACS Demographic and Housing Estimates (Latinx population); US Bureau of the Census, “Educational Attainment” (education); and US Bureau of the Census, “Selected Economic Characteristics” (income).

[3] Cole and Foster, From the Ground Up; and Bullard, Confronting Environmental Racism.

[4] Two of these three were still in operation in 2021. Rosengren, “After It First WTE Facility Closes.” These numbers come from personal communications with Mike Ewall, executive director of Energy Justice Network, September 3 2018, and Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, March 26, 2021. Although no new commercial municipal waste incinerators have been built in the time indicated, several incinerators have been retrofitted, expanded, or built on the same site as existing incinerators since 1995. In addition, in 2017 a small, noncommercial-scale gasification incinerator was built at Army Garrison Fort Hunter Liggett in Monterey County, California. There are also two medical waste incinerators operating in California, in Paramount and Hesperian. Here I follow the activist convention of calling these modern facilities incinerators, whereas the waste industry calls them waste-to-energy facilities that “superheat” waste rather than burn it. Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice and Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, “Incinerators in Disguise.”

[5] Pellow, “Environmental Inequality Formation”; and Gould, Schnaiberg, and Weinberg, Local Environmental Struggles.

[6] Baptista and Perovich, U.S. Municipal Solid Waste Incinerators; Costner and Thornton, Playing with Fire; and White, “Hazardous Waste Incineration and Minority Communities.”

[7] Cole and Foster, From the Ground Up.

[8] The Cerrell Report itself does not specify race as a category by which locations for incinerators should be chosen, but many of the proposed locations were nonetheless in communities of color. Powell, “Political Difficulties Facing Waste-to-Energy Conversion Plant Siting.”

[9] Perkins, “Voices.”

[10] Perkins, “Multiple People of Color Origins of the US Environmental Justice Movement”; and Perkins, “Women’s Pathways into Activism.”

[11] Cole, “Environmental Justice Litigation.”

[12] Cole and Foster, From the Ground Up.

[12] Cole and Foster, From the Ground Up.

[14] Cole and Foster, From the Ground Up.

[15] Perkins, “Voices.”

[16] Cole and Foster, From the Ground Up.


Sources

Baptista, Ana Isabel, and Adrienne Perovich. U.S. Municipal Solid Waste Incinerators: An Industry in Decline. New York: Tishman Environment and Design Center at the New School, 2019.

Bullard, Robert D., ed. Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots. Boston: South End Press, 1993.

Cole, Luke W., and Sheila Foster. From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

Costner, Pat, and Joe Thornton. Playing with Fire: Hazardous Waste Incineration. Washington, DC: Greenpeace USA, 1990.

Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice and Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. “Incinerators in Disguise: Case Studies of Gasification, Pyrolysis, and Plasma in Europe, Asia, and the United States.” June 2006. http://www.no-burn.org/incinerators-in-disguise-case-studies-of-gasification-pyrolysis-and-plasma-in-europe-asia-and-the-united states/.

Gould, Kenneth, Allan Schnaiberg, and Adam Weinberg. Local Environmental Struggles: Citizen Activism in the Treadmill of Production. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Pellow, David N. “Environmental Inequality Formation: Toward a Theory of Environmental Injustice.” American Behavioral Scientist 43, no. 4 (2000): 581–601. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002764200043004004.

Perkins, Tracy. “Voices.” Voices from the Valley: Environmental Justice in California’s San Joaquin Valley, 2008. http://www.voicesfromthevalley.org/voices/.

Perkins, Tracy. “The Multiple People of Color Origins of the US Environmental Justice Movement: Social Movement Spillover and Regional Racial Projects in California.” Environmental Sociology 7, no. 2 (2021): 147–59. https://doi.org/10.1080/23251042.2020.1848502.

Perkins, Tracy. “Women’s Pathways into Activism: Rethinking the Women’s Environmental Justice Narrative in California’s San Joaquin Valley.” Organization & Environment 25, no. 1 (2012): 76–94. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10
.1177/1086026612445390.

Rosengren, Cole. “After Its First WTE Closes, California Down to 2.” Waste-dive, August 2, 2018. http://www.wastedive.com/news/california-first-wte-facility-closes/529164/.

US Bureau of the Census. “ACS Demographic and Housing Estimates.” 2009–2013 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, 2013. http://factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml.

US Bureau of the Census. “Selected Economic Characteristics.” 2009–2013 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, 2013. http://factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml.

US Bureau of the Census. “Educational Attainment.” 2009–2013 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, 2013. http://factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml.

White, Harvey. “Hazardous Waste Incineration and Minority Communities.” In Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards: A Time for Discourse, edited by Bunyan Bryant and Paul Mohai, 126–39. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992.



Tracy Perkins 
is an Assistant Professor in the School for Social Transformation at Arizona State University.

Excerpts

Arise!: Global Radicalism in the Era of the Mexican Revolution

By Christina Heatherton

Excerpted from Arise!: Global Radicalism in the Era of the Mexican Revolution by Christina Heatherton, published by the University of California Press. © 2022

How to Make a Map

Small Shareholders and Global Radicals in Revolutionary Mexico 

In the age of the New Imperialism, the world was turned inside out. The dark slumbering core of the earth was flooded with light, wrenched by fiery blasts, then hacked and dragged, bit by craggy bit, to the surface. From the forced mouths of mine shafts, its innards were scavenged. Silver, copper, and zinc were dredged out of Mexico; gold was wrested from the Yukon lands of the Klondike; and diamonds were plucked from the bowels of South Africa. From deposits of unburied iron, a new exoskeleton of rail fused together across the horizon. Railways screamed over continents with the velocity of finance, tearing new pathways of commerce and trade, and bruising the land around it. Coals disgorged from the mines of West Virginia, Colorado, and Manchuria were made radiant with fire and fed, inexhaustibly, to furnaces. Skies blackened with the spew of smokestacks. Ash drifted onto windowsills. Ash was coughed up from throats. Where forests had been felled and burned to make charcoal, this era reached deep beneath tombs, down past the ancient muck and humus to grab the earth’s vital forces. Oil that had coursed through subterranean veins was transfused into the lifeblood of modern industry. Rubber ran like devil’s milk from Congolese vines into waiting Belgian ships, becoming tires, wire insulation, and machine belts, the sinews of industrial production. From the ground, grains were coaxed to even heights over gridded fields, sheathed into uniform bushels, then loaded into gaping containers. Over rails, roads, ship lines, and pounded copper wires, goods were moved, tracked, and transubstantiated into value. This new geometry of motion was animated by global capital, but it was built and shaped by disciplined muscle. Hands, arms, backs, and thighs were lowered and bent, again and again, becoming pulsing metronomes of economic time. From the dark center of the earth at the turn of the century, capital came dripping with dirt and blood from every pore. How, some wondered, could it be otherwise? The world had been turned inside out. Could it also be turned upside down?[1]  

Surely Internationalism  

Across the windswept expanse of the Sonora Desert, where the Colorado River snakes through the Mexicali Valley and slips down jagged rocks before it spills into the Sea of Cortez, there, where the US border looms like a mirage, an Okinawan immigrant named Shinsei “Paul” Kōchi found internationalism. Shipwrecked and shoeless, Kōchi walked for miles in a daze. He stepped gingerly on thorny scrub and walked reverently around the discarded canteens and dried bones of those who had come before. It was to them, the “numerous and nameless,” that Kōchi dedicated his reflections in Imin no Aiwa (An Immigrant’s Sorrowful Tale). Following the river north, Kōchi searched for food, warmth, and shelter with a small band of survivors from China, Mexico, and Japan in December 1917. Worldwide, millions had fled their countries, compelled by starvation, debt, dispossession, political repression, and the ravages of the First World War. Immigrants who were not allowed to enter countries “with dignity through the front door” routinely risked their lives “breaking in through the back gate.” Those who perished were often “buried in the sea” while others “left their bones to dry on the empty desert.” As Kōchi observed, the “tragedy” of these journeys came not from heedless risk nor naïve adventurism but “a contradiction born precisely out of modern capitalist society.”[2]  

Avalos plant near the City of Chihuahua, Circa 1905, https://avalosblog.wordpress.com/2013/03/04/its-been-a-while/

For many like Paul Kōchi, the world of 1917 was at once tragic and aflame with possibility.[3] At twenty-eight, he and his “comrade” Seitoku Miyasato had set sail for Mexico, escaping arrest and political persecution at home. The two friends hailed from Nakijin Village in Okinawa, the largest island in a South Sea chain annexed by Japan only decades prior. Despised by mainland Japanese, Okinawans struggled against accusations of being “backwards” southerners in need of centralized political rule, strengthened work ethic, linguistic assimilation, and the abandonment of their “savage” cultural traditions.[4] Kōchi and Miyasato were active in an underground reading group of village teachers opposed to Japanese despotism. Authorities blacklisted members upon discovering their copies of Daisan Teikoku, a journal critical of the government. Fearing repression, the pair planned to escape Okinawa, leaving their young families behind. Convinced they would return after a brief sojourn, they boarded a steamer at the port in Naha. Once aboard, Kōchi noted the “inexpressible feeling” that welled up in his fellow passengers as they looked upon the possible “last sight of their homeland” and of their loved ones. As the “unfeeling” ship set sail, Kōchi and Miyasato watched their young wives and children disappear, “looking permanently abandoned,” as the harbor receded.[5] The men stood together on the deck, “arm still linked to arm,” until their “mountain home sank beneath the horizon.”[6]  

Internationalism, for Kōchi, began with a sense of identification. In Hawai’i, where the ship refueled, he felt profound kinship with the Indigenous Kanaka Maoli dockworkers loading and unloading cargo. He observed the first-class passengers’ delight as they threw coins at young Hawaiians, compelling them to dive into the waves chasing the sinking pocket change. He recognized that Hawai’i, “in its climate, customs, products, as well as its recent history,” was like Okinawa: a remote chain of mountainous islands inhabited by people whose language, culture, and sovereignty were all threatened from the mainland. Hawai’i, like Okinawa, was also dominated by sugarcane cultivation, a commonality that would have been apparent to the nearly ten thousand Okinawans who labored in the Hawai’ian sugarcane plantations at the time. Kōchi listened and felt profoundly moved by the musical resonance between the two cultures: “That heart-tugging farewell Aloha Oe was, in fact, the farewell song to the fleeing king of Hawaii. (Our famous Sanyamā was just such a song for the king of Okinawa.)” Such connections only deepened throughout his journey.[7]  

As the ship briefly docked in Southern California’s San Pedro harbor, Kōchi, Miyasato, and all the other Asian passengers found themselves trapped aboard. The 1917 Immigration Act and similar diplomatic agreements prevented immigrants from the so-called “barred Asiatic zone” from entering the country. Kōchi railed against these laws and against the nativism fomented during the First World War that kept Asians from ever setting “one foot down” on US soil.[8] A flurry of indignation overtook the passengers. One Japanese man jumped overboard, desperate to reach shore. Passengers looked on in horror as the man drowned in the cold waters of the Pacific. Despondent in his confinement onboard, Kōchi stared at Catalina Island off the California coast. Slowly he began to reappraise his situation. He considered the long, violent history of US settlement and Indigenous dispossession that drove Native people like the Tongva “into the mountain recesses” to starve. He realized that if the same exclusionary nativism that was applied to him had also been “radically applied” to the United States, no settler would be allowed to set foot in the country. Kōchi condemned US immigration laws and observed that the national boundaries they maintained were themselves illegitimate. Considering the intertwined histories of racist immigration laws and rapacious settler colonialism, Kōchi imagined internationalist bonds forged through shared rage: a web of refusal seething within and against national borders.[9]  

With five hundred immigrants from Japan, India, and China still aboard, barred from entering the United States, the steamship Anyōmaru chugged south, destined for Brazil. While many in the upper decks sailed leisurely towards exotic lands and thrilling business ventures, most passengers had been coerced onboard by the churning transformations of the global economy. Since the late nineteenth century, countries newly pulled into the frenzy of modern finance saw intensified investment in extractive industries and commercialized agriculture. The subsequent evisceration of communal land holdings and subsistence farming practices had uprooted millions of peasants, including those en route from the “barred Asiatic zone.” Many of the Anyōmaru’s passengers were bound for contract work in the Caribbean and throughout Latin America, often following labor recruiters’ promised jobs. Japanese and Okinawan immigrants sought to join compatriots in Brazilian mining communities. Along with Chinese counterparts, they also sought contracts in places like Peru and throughout the Caribbean. The swirling chaos of colonialism and war also produced its own global circuits, dragging colonial soldiers, particularly from India, onto foreign battlefields. As their labors were conscripted into war economies, their ranks expanded in what Priyamvada Gopal describes as a “world-wide belt of insurgencies.”[10] Radical Japanese students who called themselves “comrades of the four seas” invited Kōchi and Miyasato to join them in Cuba. The two friends had other plans. A ship’s porter had hinted about the possibility of sneaking into the United States through Mexico. This is what the pair resolved to do once the ship docked in Oaxaca.[11]  

From the moment their “feet touched down” in Mexico, Kōchi and Miyasato were immediately conscious of being “immigrants owning nothing but our bodies.” They were detained and quarantined in harrowing conditions along with other immigrants.[12] The men looked on in horror as a prisoner from India was stripped and then doused with sulfur, his money belt stolen in the process. As they shared with him their meager funds, the man thanked them for being “Buddhas in Hell.” A few days later, several dozen Asian immigrants, including some of their fellow Okinawan villagers, joined their cell. The area was “well-known for its searing winds,” which blew through the barred windows day and night, creating “sandstorms” inside the jail.[13] Covered in the same dust, Kōchi understood his fellow prisoners as “convicts banished to Siberia in Tsarist Russia,” a timely comparison given that Russian people had recently overthrown that Tsarist regime during the Bolshevik Revolution. The experience was not lost on the men. Given their travels, confinements, and commitments, Kōchi declared retrospectively that he and Miyasato were already “internationalists.”[14]  

Japanese immigrants in Sonora, Mexico, Circa 1910, Courtesy Reseña Histórica de la Migración Collection of Asociación México Japonesa, A.C.

Released from prison and into the heat of the Revolution, Kōchi and Miyasato (along with their Spanish-speaking countrymen) raced toward the US border. The men traversed a convulsive landscape, dancing to guitars in Mazatlán and narrowly escaping bandits as their train hugged the western coast through Culiacán. They launched a small boat out of Guayamas. For a week, they sailed north up the inlet of the Gulf of California. In a disaster, the boat caught fire, forcing all passengers to jump overboard. When they reassembled on shore, they discovered that only thirteen of the original passengers remained. Shipwrecked in the Sonoran Desert on December 2, 1917, the small group had next to no supplies. They collected “snow waters” from the Colorado River in rusty tin cans. They ripped strips of cloth and tore out their trouser pockets in vain attempts to protect their feet from sagebrush, cacti, and the cold. A crumbling biscuit was shared among the men. Tearing down the shore, Kōchi called out for his friend. His cries of “Miyasato! Miyasato!” were swallowed by the sea. The group was forced to press on.   

In his travels throughout northern Mexico, Kōchi continually discovered and rediscovered internationalism. His group was saved by an Indigenous Yaqui family, who fed the men, gave them shelter, and offered them homemade leather shoes. The warmth of the family reminded him of home. He encountered a French trader who smuggled him to the border under a pile of hay to avoid the eyes of Mexican guards. This kindness, he said, “was surely internationalism.” When Kōchi finally reached the border, it was a group of Chinese immigrant workers who met him. Wrote Kōchi, “It seemed that for them we were all immigrants travelling the same road and they understood our situation from their hearts. This ‘class consciousness’ cuts across race and nationality and promotes mutual understanding which, if preserved and extended, would make the deserts bloom.”[15]  

Paul Kōchi’s story demonstrates how the uprooted, dispossessed, and despised of the world came to know each other in shadows, in the tangled spaces of expulsion, extraction, transportation, debt, exploitation, and destruction: the garroting circuits of modern capital. Whether crammed in tight ship quarters; knocking together over the rails; sweating and swaying in the relentless tempo of industrial agriculture; inhaling the dank air of mine shafts; hearing each other breathing, coughing, fighting, singing, snoring, and sighing through thin walls; or corralled like livestock in jails and prisons, the contradictions of modern capital were shared in its intimate spaces. Within such sites, people discovered that the circuits of revolution, like the countervailing circuits of capital, were realizable in motion, often through unplanned assemblages. Roaring at their backs were the revolutionary currents of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, currents that howled from the metropolitan hearts of empire and wailed across the peripheries of the global world system. Standing before them, in the middle of its own revolution, was Mexico. From the vantage point of these struggles, the new century did not simply portend the inevitability of urban revolts and insurgencies at the point of production, but an epoch of peasant wars, rural uprisings, anti-colonial movements, and, of course, the Mexican Revolution. Mexico, as both a real country and an imagined space of revolution, would become a crucible of internationalism for the world’s “rebels” like Paul Kōchi.[16]  

Paul Kōchi’s Imin no Aiwa presents internationalism as nearly an inevitable phenomenon. By narrating his path from Okinawa to the United States through Mexico, Kōchi describes how travel along the contradictory routes newly limned by capital and imperialism enabled him to acquire a radical global consciousness. In describing his encounters with Indigenous people and other immigrants along the way, he offers a sense of how such consciousness could be produced through the contradictory social spaces of ships, trains, boats, in detention, and through covert passage across Mexico towards the US border. Kōchi’s story offers an important perspective into the relationship between the political economy of the period and the formation of a revolutionary consciousness. In this, Kōchi was not alone.  

The transformation of the global economy certainly set the stage for the development of an internationalist consciousness. But if all that was required for internationalism were the conditions of a hard journey, the world would be full of internationalists. As significant as Kōchi’s travels were, there were far more people who lived during the era of the Mexican Revolution, who even came to Mexico at the time, who did not become internationalists. This was particularly true for the fortune hunters who arrived seeking land, fame, or wealth in the country in spite of the many radical possibilities presented by the Revolution. This was also true for many Asian immigrants like Kōchi, particularly Chinese immigrants who suffered extraordinary violence and repression at the hands of state and non-state actors. The paths of those who came, saw, but chose moderate or outright reactionary paths reveal some of the fetters inhibiting the making of internationalism. This chapter explores both these possibilities and barriers.[17]  

In the era of its Revolution, Mexico represented multiple configurations of space: it was simultaneously a fixed place on the map, a place made meaningful relative to the places it bordered or was connected to through roads, rails, and ports, and it was also an imagined space, upon which multiple competing fantasies were projected. The chapter considers the experiences of radicals who lived in, traveled to, or found themselves in Mexico during the during the fighting phase of the Revolution, 1910–20. The collective act of making new worlds, as they discovered, required a reckoning with the seductions of nationalism, the social relations of imperialism, and the spatial imaginaries of capital. Internationalism, in other words, had to be forged, not simply found. To do so, as this chapter shows, it had to compete with the enticements of the color line, the racist and gendered fantasies of the New Imperialism.    

SOURCES

[1] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin Books, [1976] 1990), 926; Rosa, Luxemburg, Accumulation of Capital (London: Routledge, 2003); David Montgomery, Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State and American Labor Activism, 1865–1925 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 70; John Tully, Devil’s Milk: A Social History of Rubber (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011); Arthur Conan Doyle, Crime of the Congo. (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1909); Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (New York: Viking Press, 1972).  

[2] Quotes come from Paul Shinsei Kōchi, Imin No Aiwa (An Immigrant’s Sorrowful Tale), trans. Ben Kobashigawa (Los Angeles: Privately printed, 1978). There are minor differences between this version and the version written in June 1938 and republished as Shinshei Kōchi, “Sad Tale of an Immigrant: Dedicated to the Souls of the Departed,” in History of the Okinawans in North America, trans. Ben Kobashigawa (Los Angeles: Okinawan Club of America and the Asian American Studies Center, University of California, 1988), 524–540. Where relevant, these differences will be noted.  

[3] In the 1978 publication of Imin no Aiwa, Kōchi describes setting off: “At four in the afternoon on September 2 in the 7th year of the Taishō era (1918), we rebels boarded the Taigimaru bound for Kobi” (19). But the 1988 edition describes the graffiti Kōchi scribbles on the wall of the Salina Cruz detention center as a note signed “November 1917” and later a message on a rock dated “December 1917” (528, 532).  

[4] On “backwardness” and “savage” and for debates on Okinawa’s colonial status, see Alan S. Christy, “The Making of Imperial Subjects in Okinawa,” in Formations of Colonial Modernity in East Asia, ed. Tani E. Barlow (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997), 141–70, and Julia Yonetani, “Ambiguous Traces and the Politics of Sameness: Placing Okinawa in Meiji Japan,” Japanese Studies 20, no. 1 (2000): 15–31. For a discussion of Japan in the context of Gramsci’s “Southern Question,” see Harry Harootunian, “Some Reflections on Gramsci: The Southern Question in the Deprovincializing of Marx,” in Gramsci in the World, ed. Frederic Jameson and Robert M. Dainotto (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020), 140–57. 

[5] Kōchi, Imin No Aiwa, 20; Chushichi Tsuzuki, The Pursuit of Power in Modern Japan, 1825–1995 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000) 192; Chushichi Tsuzuki, “The Changing Image of Britain among Japanese Intellectuals,” in The History of Anglo-Japanese Relations 1600–2000: Social and Cultural Perspectives, ed. Gordon Daniels and Chushichi Tsuzuki (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 17–40.  

[6] Kōchi, “Sad Tale of an Immigrant,” 526.  

[7] Kōchi, Imin No Aiwa, 21, 33; Mamoru Akamine, The Ryukyu Kingdom: Cornerstone of East Asia, trans. Lina Terrell, ed. Robert N. Huey (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2016), 140; Richard Siddle,  “Colonialism and Identity in Okinawa Before 1945,” Japanese Studies 18, no. 2 (1998): 121–22; James E. Roberson, “Singing Diaspora: Okinawan Songs of Home, Departure, and Return,” Identities 17, no. 4 (2010): 430–53; J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, Hawaiian Blood: Colonialism and the Politics of Sovereignty and Indigeneity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008); Edith Mitsuko Kaneshiro, “‘Our home will be the five continents’: Okinawan Migration to Hawaii, California, and the Philippines, 1899–1941” (PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1999), 116; Adria L. Imada, “‘Aloha ‘Oe’”: Settler-Colonial Nostalgia and the Genealogy of a Love Song,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 37, no. 2 (2013): 35–52; Michael Denning, Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution (New York: Verso, 2015), 35–67.  

[8] Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 18.  

[9] Kōchi, Imin No Aiwa, 33. For intertwined histories of immigrant exclusion and settler colonialism see Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Not “A Nation of Immigrants”: Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and a History of Erasure and Exclusion (Boston: Beacon, 2021). On refusal to consent to colonial mappings and occupations of territory, see Audra Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 128. Mahmood Mamdani suggests placing US settler-colonialism into a “global-historical” standpoint as a precursor to decolonization in Neither Settler nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020), 98–99.  

[10] Priyamvada Gopal, Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent (London: Verso, 2019), 209.  

[11] Grace Peña Delgado, Making the Chinese Mexican: Global Migration, Localism, and Exclusion in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013); Edith M. Kaneshiro, “Communists, Christians, and Japanese Imperial Subjects: Okinawan Immigrants within the Japanese Diaspora, 1899 to 1941,” in Studies in Pacific History: Economics, Politics, and Migration, ed. Dennis O. Flynn, Arturo Giráldez, and James Sobredo (London: Routledge, 2018), 170–87.  

[12] Kōchi, Imin no Aiwa, 23. Since there is a discrepancy over the date of the voyage, the nature of the quarantine is unclear. If the trip occurred at the end of 1917, the quarantine would have been for typhus. If it occurred at the end of 1918, it would have been for the Spanish Flu pandemic. See Ryan M. Alexander, “The Fever of War: Epidemic Typhus and Public Health in Revolutionary Mexico City, 1915–1917,” Hispanic American Historical Review 100, no. 1 (2020): 63–92; Ryan M. Alexander, “The Spanish Flu and the Sanitary Dictatorship: Mexico’s Response to the 1918 Influenza Pandemic,” The Americas 76. no. 3 (July 2019): 443–65.  

[13] Kōchi, Imin no Aiwa, 23. 

[14] Kōchi, “Sad Tale of an Immigrant,” 528.  

[15] Kōchi, Imin No Aiwa, 35, 39.  

[16] For the debates about the disjuncture between nineteenth-century revolutionary political predictions and twentieth-century revolutionary conditions, see Cedric J. Robinson, An Anthropology of Marxism (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2001), 153; Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (London: Verso, 2007), 174; Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (London: Verso, 2002), 207–9; Mike Davis, “Old Gods, New Enigmas,” Catalyst 1, no. 2 (2017): 7–40. For a discussion of the insufficiency of the “transnational” designation, see Arif Dirlik, “Performing the World: Reality and Representation in the Making of World Histor(ies),” Journal of World History 16, no. 4 (December 2005): 391–410. Dirlik notes, “Ethnic and diasporic spaces are prime examples in our day of such spaces that are often described, somewhat misleadingly in my opinion, as ‘transnational’ spaces. Such spaces preceded in their existence the emergence of nations; they may not be of equal significance to all parts of the nation, in which case they may help undermine its unity and homogeneity, and they are quite likely to outlast the nation as we have known it” (397). 

[17] For many Asian immigrants like Kōchi, especially many Chinese people, the question of internationalism in relation to the Mexican Revolution was a vexed one. East Asians were unevenly incorporated into state-building and capitalist development projects. As Jason Oliver Chang notes, Chinese immigrants were largely regarded as disposable labor or motores de sangre (engines of blood) under the Porfiriato and then later reimagined as threats to the state and killable subjects at different points during the Revolution. See Jason Oliver Chang, Chino: Anti-Chinese Racism in Mexico, 1880–1940 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2017), 8, 71–87; Robert Chao Romero, The Chinese in Mexico, 1882–1940 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012); María Elena Ota Mishima, Destino México: un estudio de las Migraciones Asiáticas a México, siglos XIX y XX. Mexico D.F.: Colegio de Mexico Centro de Estudios de Asia y Africa, 1997. 

Christina Heatherton is an American Studies scholar and historian of anti-racist social movements. She is an Associate Professor of American Studies and Human Rights at Trinity College.

Excerpts

A Kiss across the Ocean

Richard T. Rodríguez

A FRIEND NAMED SIOUX

In their introduction to the anthology Goth: Undead Subculture, Lauren M. E. Goodlad and Michael Bibby identify Sioux as one of goth’s founding figures. They write that Sioux, “who began her career as a gothic doyenne in the Sex Pistols’ scene, helped to popularize a look characterized by deathly pallor, dark makeup, Weimar-era decadence, and Nazi chic” (2007, 1). While one might take issue with their conflation of Sioux’s styles that span a significant period of time (particularly when her adoption of “Nazi chic” was an early, brief, and much regretted move that assented to the miscalculated punk attempt at subversiveness by wielding the swastika on an armband or T-shirt), Goodlad and Bibby are right to note her significant role in popularizing what we now understand as goth.[1] However, on numerous occasions, Sioux and Banshees bassist Steven Severin have commented on their association with goth, often times referring to it as “goff” to signal a clichéd performance that has flattened rather than highlighted the nuances underscoring the band’s music. As Sioux asserts, “Gothic in its purest sense is actually a very powerful, twisted genre, but the way it was being used by journalists—‘goff’ with a double ‘f’—always seemed to me to be about tacky harum scarum horror and I find that anything but scary. That wasn’t what we were about at all. There was something hippie about it too. Juju [the Banshees’ fourth and undeniably most critically acclaimed album] did have a horror theme to it, but it was psychological horror, nothing to do with ghosts and ghouls” (Paytress 2003, 106, emphasis added). Noting that they were “reading a lot of Edgar Allan Poe at the time” (107), Severin admits that while the band indeed described Juju as “gothic” upon the album’s release, journalists had not picked up on or immediately classified the music and the band as such. Cited as a key influence on subsequent artists, Sioux clarifies that the “strong identity” of Juju was diluted: “The goth bands that came in our wake tried to mimic [us]. They were using horror as the basis for stupid rock ’n’ roll pantomime” (107).

While the “psychological horror” characteristic of the album and much of the band’s music runs more in the vein of The Twilight Zone than Dracula (or as one-time Banshees guitarist John McGeoch recalls, “More blood dripping on a daisy than scary beast sinking its fangs into its victim” (Paytress 2003, 107), it is also about the everyday alienation experienced by those on the periphery. Indeed, Severin notes that the track “Halloween,” which based on title alone may seem to conjure that yearly celebration’s attendant ghosts and ghouls, is based on a revelation the bassist had as a six-year-old: “I suddenly realised that I was a separate person. I was no longer simply a part of things. And once you realise that, you’ve lost a certain innocence.”[2] As the lyrics substantiate, “‘Trick or treat’ / The bitter and the sweet / The carefree days / Are distant now.” And while Siouxsie became, as Mark Paytress points out, “a style icon for a generation of ambitious, thrill-seeking young women” who visually emulated their rebellious idol, she and the Banshees sounded a marshaling call for outsiders everywhere to stand and be counted.[3] Recounting how she was bullied daily at school as a child, Garbage lead singer Shirley Manson saw in Siouxsie a rebel with whom she could identify, and the Banshees’ music provided the stimulus for converting her disenfranchisement into the feeling that she could rule the world.[4] Moreover, in her foreword to Paytress’s biography, Manson reasons that miscategorizing the band as goth dulls the “real edge” of Siouxsie and the Banshees. Their music, she maintains, reveals “so much articulated spite, humour and politics with a small ‘p’” while refusing to perambulate “down that simple, gloomy path” (Paytress 2003, 9).

In the band’s assessment of Juju and its contested gothic impulse, what I find most remarkable is Severin’s following confession: “If there was a band that influenced what we did on Juju it was The Cramps. Not musically, because they were much more rooted in straightforward rock ’n’ roll, but in terms of some of their imagery and the way they came across” (Paytress 2003, 107). The Cramps—described by one journalist as “the scariest band of all time” (Tashjian 2018)—were an American punk band that began to take shape in Akron, Ohio, in 1974 and took flight the following year in New York City. Consisting of the husband-and-wife combo of vocalist Lux Interior and bassist Poison Ivy, along with guitarist Bryan Gregory and numerous drummers in their early years, the Cramps—after making a momentous impact on the formative New York punk scene and playing noted venues like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City—relocated to Los Angeles in 1980. According to Ivy, “We didn’t move to LA because the scene was in LA, it was because there was no scene any more that there was no reason to stay in New York” (Porter 2015, 163). And at that time, Lux notes, “New York [was] concentrating on British bands or out of town bands” (163). Indeed, 1980 was the year Siouxsie and the Banshees would first tour the United States.

Severin’s aforementioned comment that the Banshees drew influence from the Cramps makes sense for how the former crafted their persona after the latter, based not on their music but on their “imagery” and “how they came across.” When comparing the image of the Cramps and Siouxsie and the Banshees, what becomes apparent at this particular moment is that they both boasted an undeniable psychedelic aesthetic that flew in the face of an assumed perpetual adornment of all-black gear. One might also point to Ivy’s and Siouxsie’s teased big hair or both bands’ affinity for classic horror and psychological thriller films (which, despite each group’s distinct musical styles noted by Severin, is titularly registered by the Banshees’ “Spellbound” and the Cramps’ “I Was a Teenage Werewolf ”).[5] And like the Banshees, “The Cramps were a fully formed vision. People think, ‘Ooh horror movies, and ooh black.’ But no, it’s so much more than that. . . . It was a whole lifestyle. A manifesto” (“Kid Congo Powers Oral History” 2005). In view of their association, I want to signal another link between the two bands: the bond shared by Siouxsie and the Cramps’ one-time guitarist, Kid Congo Powers.

The same year Siouxsie and the Banshees first toured the States, Kid (né Brian Tristan), a third-generation Mexican American born in La Puente, California, joined the Cramps to replace Bryan Gregory on guitar. Introduced to a variety of musical traditions and genres from his family, Kid recalls hearing Mexican rancheras at weekend family parties and bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (and “low-rider music, doo wop, oldies, a lot of soul and funk music, a lot of Santana, Jimi Hendrix, and Black Sabbath”) while growing up.[6] A thirteen-year-old “big magazine hound” who pored over the pages of Creem and Rock Scene, he learned of Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, the New York Dolls, Television, Patti Smith, and others defining the 1970s New York City glam and emergent punk scene, eventually becoming the Ramones fan club president. In 1977, the seventeen-year-old Brian traveled with a school group to Europe. With London as one stop on the trip, he and a friend split off from their peers “and just went to concerts the whole time and sought out punk rock record stores.” As he recalls, “I went to this club, the Vortex Club, and I saw the Slits play and dif­ferent bands. And the Clash were hanging out and Siouxsie and it was all very very very exciting. I was like seventeen—not even eighteen yet. And I got a punk rock haircut and came back to NY at the time and saw the Dead Boys and the Heartbreakers and went to CBGB’s and went back to LA quite informed with what was going on” (“Kid Congo Powers Oral History” 2005).[7]

A devoted fan of the Cramps, the twenty-year-old Kid was beyond elated when invited to join the band as their guitarist upon Gregory’s departure.[8] Renamed “Kid Congo Powers” by Poison Ivy and Lux Interior from a Santeria candle with the inscription “When you light this candle, Congo powers will be revealed to you,” Tristan added “Kid” because he “thought it sounded like a boxer or a pirate” (Porter 2007, 87–88). Appearing on two of the band’s signature releases—Psychedelic Jungle (1981) and the live mini-album Smell of Female (1984)—he remained with the Cramps until September 1983. In an illuminating 2005 oral history with the online publication New York Night Train, Kid details his abiding relationship with Siouxsie over the duration of his membership with the Cramps, the Gun Club (the LA-based country/cow punk/post-punk band to which he was recruited by longtime El Monte friend and collaborator Jeffrey Lee Pierce, who in his book Go Tell the Mountain identifies Siouxsie and the Banshees as “friends more or less” [(1998) 2017, 45]), and Fur Bible (a collaborative endeavor with Patricia Morrison—bassist and cofounder of the Bags and later a member of the Sisters of Mercy—and drummer Desperate). In Kid’s words:

We had been friends with Siouxsie for a long time. I had actually met Siouxsie and the Banshees, the whole band, when I was in the Cramps and we did some shows together and I befriended them. Billy Holston, who was their assistant, right-hand man—he’s the guy who made the Fur Bible cover, the artwork on that—he was a champion of our band. And he suggested it to them. And the Gun Club had played some shows with the Banshees as well and they were big fans of the Gun Club. And so they asked us to go on a tour with them and of course we said yes. And that was good because they were really popular at the time. We played at the Royal Albert Hall, where Bob Dylan played, and we played at big theaters everywhere in England. I guess we went over OK. I don’t remember. (“Kid Congo Powers Oral History” 2005)

After the Gun Club’s split in 1984, Fur Bible lent their support to the Banshees, opening a number of shows for the Tinderbox tour. From their reformation two years later in 1986 until their final days in 1996, Siouxsie remained a fan and friend to both the band and Kid.

In Donna Santisi’s landmark book of photographs, Ask the Angels (originally published in 1978 and redistributed in 2010), Kid and Siouxsie are captured together during a 1982 visit to Disneyland in Anaheim, California.[9] Santisi provides the backstory:

One day Siouxsie Sioux wanted to go to Disneyland. It was Sioux, Kid Congo, Marcy Blaustein, Randy Kaye, and me. Sioux was really excited when we got there but once we were on Main Street, two security men came up to her and told her she had to leave. They said that she looked like an attraction and it would confuse the people in the park. Siouxsie was telling the men that she just wanted to see everything and go on the rides. They finally agreed that Sioux could stay if she covered up with Randy’s raincoat. We were followed all day by several security people with walkie talkies.[10]

Capturing Sioux’s delight in absorbing the sights and attractions of Disneyland, Santisi’s photography, as Kid keenly notes, “catches the subject matter at ease, casual, yet exciting” (Santisi [1978] 2010, 32). Since encountering these photos, I have diligently studied their details. Not only do they index the globally recognized theme park I’ve visited since childhood, given its location in the next city over from where I grew up, but they register an unmistakable intimacy between Siouxsie Sioux and Kid Congo Powers.

In the two photos reproduced in Santisi’s book—one in which they flank the walkaround character Br’er Fox culled from the animated sequences of the Disney film Song of the South (Foster and Jackson 1946) and the other capturing the two sharing a ride on the Tomorrowland Rocket Jets—Kid and Siouxsie, with their almost identical big, black manes, recall Severin’s comparison of the Banshees and the Cramps. In this instance, though, the Cramps are represented by this Chicano from the Los Angeles suburb of El Monte whose discernable brownness contrasts with his friend’s pallid complexion, yet his chosen aesthetic categorically matches that of the former suburban Bromley recluse turned Ice Queen. With Disneyland—a wider-scale Wonderland of sorts—serving as one spatial point of contact, Kid and Siouxsie’s post-punk transatlantic intimacy manifests in Santisi’s photos that connote unequivocal joy and affection. Apparent in the discernable touch shared by Siouxsie and Kid in the small space of the jet, one may also, following Tina Campt (2017), listen to this image to hear their respective bands’ sonic intimacy. And I can’t help but imagine my ten-year-old self at nearby Disneyland on the same day as Siouxsie and Kid, admiring these outcast and defiant figures whose names I would learn three years later from music magazines, not unlike those publications the young Brian Tristan, also as a thirteen-year-old queer Chicano Southern California kid, intently read with the information discovered on their pages solidly committed to memory.[11]

Troy Andreas Araiza Kokinis, in his poignant essay “El Monte’s Wildweed: Biraciality and the Punk Ethos of the Gun Club’s Jeffrey Lee Pierce,” writes about the “otherness” uniquely experienced by Kid and Pierce
(whose mother was Mexican and who felt at home in Southern California Mexican American culture) in relation to the punk and alternative music scenes. For Kid, Kokinis writes, “the Hollywood punk scene” was “a site of refuge for weirdos and outsiders of all types, including racialized people and gender queers,” whereas Pierce, despite “being a white-passing biracial Chicano,” “remained uncomfortable with whiteness throughout his life” (2020, 237, 238). Yet Kid, noting his inability to pass as white, concedes his incessant outcast status: “America is white culture and Anglo culture. No matter how I do not even speak Spanish; I was raised as anyone would be in LA. But you still feel like an outsider” (238). With the combined dimension of his queer sexuality, Kid declares a “built-in otherness and built-in bucking the system,” thus prompting his ability to “shine and belong, to others” (238). Given her history as a social outcast and her alliances forged with kindred outsiders like those making up “the Bromley Contingent,” Siouxsie’s bond with Kid Congo Powers makes complete sense not only with respect to their mutual admiration as artists but also based on the affinitive alignment of a gay Chicano man in a predominantly white subculture and a woman fronting an all-male band in a mostly male music scene. And while the body of writing about the participation of queers and people of color in punk contexts in either the US or the UK has exponentially grown, there’s also much to be said about the relationships cultivated between American musicians of color and British post-punk artists in these often-overlapping music scenes.[12]


NOTES

[1] Chapter 3, focused on the Northampton band Bauhaus, engages in a more thorough discussion of goth, particularly around the 1979 single “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” their most famous song, considered by many the first goth record and the unofficial goth anthem. Siouxsie has on more than one occasion expressed her regret for wearing the swastika, primarily on an armband. As she explains, “Maybe I had been naïve in thinking people would understand what I was doing with the swastika. I must have been, because we started to get a lot of National Front skinheads turning up to gigs. They used to piss me off so much. I tried everything to stop them coming, drawing attention to them and slagging them off, even stopping a gig and beating the shit out of them a few times. But they just wouldn’t fuck off. I was so pissed off that I decided to use another equally strong symbol, the Star of David, which would completely alienate the idiots. When we played this gig in Derby, we tried everything to stop them, but nothing seemed to work. So we went off stage, put the ‘Israel’ T-shirts on and did ‘Drop Dead’ with the lights spotlighting them. It was fantastic. The whole audience felt empowered and turned on them” (Paytress 2003, 104). Despite adopting the Star of David on T-shirts and for their single “Israel” (and featuring “Red over White” on the B-side) as “an atonement” and writing the song “Metal Postcard (Mittageisen)” in the memory of anti-Nazi visual artist John Heartfield, journalists and scholars continued to take note of the too-casual incorporation of Nazi imagery in punk contexts of which Siouxsie was a part. For a discussion on Sioux’s range of styles, see Kevin Petty (1995), “The Image of Siouxsie Sioux: Punk and the Politics of Gender”; and Simon Reynolds and Joy Press, The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion and Rock ’n’ Roll, which notes how Sioux’s “career has consisted of an endless succession of costume changes and sexual personae” (1995, 291). Lucy O’Brien’s ([1995] 2020) foundational She Bop also provides an excellent arch for assessing Siouxsie’s initially controversial public image to her sui generis role in the British punk and post-punk scenes.

[2] Severin’s words are from the liner notes written by Mark Paytress for Polydor’s 2006 remastered cd release of Juju.

[3] The persistence of the Siouxsie clone extends into the recent present, as illustrated in a 2013 episode of the American sketch comedy television series Portlandia, where the character Alexandra models herself after Siouxsie, hilariously mispronouncing her name “Suxie Sux.”

[4] Taken from Manson’s interview in The Queens of British Pop (Newton 2009).

[5] These songs are no doubt nods to Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) and Gene Fowler Jr.’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957).

[6] For additional information, see “Kid Congo Powers Oral History” (2005).

[7] For an insightful local history of Kid Congo Powers, see Melissa Hidalgo (2021), “Gente from La Puente: Underground Punk Icon Kid Congo Powers Still Rocks.”

[8] John Wombat’s (2018) The Cramps, Beast and Beyond: A Book about Bryan Gregory provides an insightful account of Gregory’s personal history.

[9] Additional Santisi photos of the Disneyland visit can be found in Ray Stevenson’s (1986) Siouxsie and the Banshees: Photo Book, although they are reproduced in a much smaller scale. I thank Donna Santisi for clarifying that her photos were taken in January 1982.

[10] This Santisi quote is taken from an interview with Alice Bag (2016).

[11] For an interesting analysis that understands Kid Congo Powers’s future embrace of the vampire (and hus tallying another example of what she calls the “Chicano Dracula” figure) see Paloma Martinez-Cruz (2020), “Chicano Dracula: The Passions and Predations of Bela Lugosi, Gomez Addams, and Kid Congo Powers.” Martinez-Cruz’s argument about Kid Congo Powers-as-vampire superbly assists in refusing his categorization as some standard-issue goth.

[12] In the case of the former, see Alice Bag’s (2011) excellent autobiography Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage, a Chicana Punk Story; Jayna Brown (2011), “‘Brown Girl in the Ring’: Poly Styrene, Anabella Lwin, and the Politics of Anger”; Michelle Cruz Gonzales (2016), The Spit Boy Rule: Tales of a Xicana in a Female Punk Band; Colin Gunckel (2017), “‘People Think We’re Weird ’Cause We’re Queer’: Art Meets Punk in Los Angeles”; and Celeste Bell and Zoë Howe (2019), Dayglo! The Poly Styrene Story.


SOURCES

“Kid Congo Powers Oral History.” 2015. New York Night Train. October. http://www.newyorknighttrain.com/zine/issues/1/oralhist.html.

Goodlad, Lauren M. E., and Michael Bibby, eds. 2007. Goth: Undead Subculture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Paytress, Mark. 2003. Siouxsie and the Banshees: The Authorized Biography. London: Sanctuary

Porter, Dick. 2007. The Cramps: A Short History of Rock ’n’ Roll Psychosis. London: Plexus.

Porter, Dick. 2015. Journey to the Centre of the Cramps. London: Omnibus.

Santisi, Donna. (1978) 2010. Ask the Angels: Photographs by Donna Santisi. Los Angeles: Kill Your Idols.

Tashjian, Rachel. 2018. “In Praise of the Cramps, the Scariest Band of All Time.” Vice, October 24. https://garage.vice.com/en_us/article/9k74m8 /the-cramps-style.

Richard T. Rodríguez is a Professor of Media & Cultural Studies and English at the University of California, Riverside.

Copyright Duke University Press, 2022

You can purchase the book here: https://www.dukeupress.edu/a-kiss-across-the-ocean

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Welcoming Our New Editor 

As long-time readers of Boom California, it has been an honor to work with artists, writers, poets, student interns, and scholars to think deeply about California’s past, present, and future. Raised East of East Los Angeles to migrant parents from neighboring colonias in Guadalajara (via neighboring ranchos in Zacatecas), we worked hard to center overlooked communities, cities, and regions, as well as voices. Like many parents, we did our best to balance work and childcare during a global pandemic and to mourn those we lost in the last three years. We appreciate your patience and the invaluable work of peer-reviewers. 

We’re thrilled to announce that Boom California will continue under the visionary editorship of Dr. Ofelia Cuevas and be housed at UC Davis. A third-generation Californian and Ethnic Studies scholar, Dr. Cuevas brings a commitment to theory and praxis. Her work on state violence and incarceration has been published in journals like American Quarterly, PUBLIC, and edited books such as Black and Brown Los Angeles: A Contemporary Reader (UC Press, 2013). She is currently directing a California focused campus wide initiative for formerly incarcerated and system impacted students. She is also the recipient of a UCOP Multicampus Research Grant which will excavate the historical connections of The Organization of Solidarity of the People of Africa, Asia, and Latin America (OSPAAAL) political print art with political print art in California and the West. Lastly, she is working on her second book titled, A Consideration of the West: California and the Geo-Historical Shift of the US.    

Romeo Guzmán will stay on as editor-at-large, Carribean Fragoza will become the poetry and creative non-fiction editor, and Claremont Graduate University PhD student Daniel Talamantes will step in as an editorial assistant. We hope that you will continue to read and support Boom California

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Interspecies Assemblage: The San Gabriel Valley through the lens of Jesús Romo

Text by Daniel Talamantes, photos by Jesús Romo

“Riding the River”

Taking Shape of the River

“In it, you realize the river has no shape,” reflects Jesús Romo on his photo, “Riding in the River.” The photo depicts a pair of vaqueros wading through a tributary in Whittier Narrows. Above the horses’ cannon, water splashes above their knees, infusing motion in the still. Twilight eclipses a vaquero’s greeting hand and sombrero as his riding partner advances toward us—or is he following Jesús Romo? Ripples, ephemera, trace the contours of Jesús Romo’s ghost in the water out of frame as he puts the scene in focus. The patina of ordered ripples contrasts with the shoreline brush of shadowy chaos.

“Riding in the River,” though taken recently, feels like it belongs in another place and time. The photo conjures modalities in movement, of diaspora, and an environmental legacy that were once ubiquitous in the region, but now reduced to a rare and confined natural space. Wilderness and vaqueros elicit a pathos or melancholic reflection of what could have been. While the photo may hint toward a better depiction of the San Gabriel Valley’s natural setting, it does not necessarily portray the accurate social history of Mexican and Latinx communities. Still, it shows how vaqueros or vaqueras have gained success in claiming public space and reclaiming Mexican presence in the San Gabriel Valley.

What remains of Whittier Narrows is only a hint of what the region used to be. As David Reid in East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte writes, “[Whittier Narrows] ensured the survival of some 400 acres of forest, lakes, trails, lawns, and soccer fields… preserved a link to the Whittier Narrows area’s history and to the natural world… and offers the first taste of the natural world to many locals.”1 Always under threat of development, Whittier Narrows, cleaved and siloed by the 60 freeway, 605 freeway, and Rosemead Boulevard remains a site of natural wonder, preservation, and recreation for the surrounding communities of Avocado Heights, El Monte, South El Monte, and La Puente, among others.

“Riding in the Narrows”

The oneiric quality of Whittier Narrows is troubled by the waking reality of the Whittier Narrow Dam. Despite community efforts to preserve Whittier Narrows by relocating the dam further down the river, the dam ultimately punctuates the city and county’s priority for energy extraction and management. But there’s a great irony here: the county’s erection of the dam had arguably secured Whittier Narrow’s survival. This is an important consideration. It evinces this space as an example of a contested site of culture and power. The dam becomes a metonym for industrial control and extraction of diaspora’s flow. Just beyond the frame, a titanic urban landscape lurks. It encroaches. Matrices of roads and freeways, telephone wires, and pipes fasten to strangulate the veritable island of wilderness. Waste facilities, manufacturing plants, and distribution centers leech pollutants into streams and soil. The air over it so thick of smog can be noisome of sulfur, ammonia, rubber, or other strands of toxic fumes.

“Trail ride with Esteban and company”

In winter, without any other form of access or way to bridge neighboring communities, Jesús Romo explains that the tributaries are the only passable trails connecting this natural corridor to his community of Avocado Heights, until they are too deep to traverse. Auto industries, waste facilities, and housing developments converted a rich agricultural and natural landscape into grids of pavement, fences, pipes, and wires. Avocado Heights, among many surrounding communities, became what city planner scholar William Fulton refers to as the “suburbs of extraction,” where Latinx individuals, despite attaining political power, struggle in economic scarcity to access resources and fund public services.2 Furthering this, scholar Laura R. Barraclough writes in Charros: How Mexican Cowboys are Remapping Race and American Identity, suburbs of extraction like the many in San Gabriel Valley, “[find] themselves empty-handed, with few strategies available beyond luring businesses such as casinos, pawn shops, and scrap metal recycling yards—all of which…extract any remaining wealth from already-disinvested sources.”3          

“Employee at feed store near Sports Arena”

Situated between the Puente Hills, California canyons and Whittier Narrows, Avocado Heights is an unincorporated neighborhood east of the 605 freeway and just north of the San Jose Creek which feeds into the San Gabriel River. The town’s population remains approximately fifteen thousand people, yet it is surrounded by much larger cities such as City of Industry, La Puente, El Monte, South El Monte, and adjacent to a constellation of other unincorporated communities such as Bassett and North Whittier. A distinct feature of Avocado Heights is its designation as an equestrian district which traces its legacy to the vaqueros of early Californio’s and Mexico—of which hold a vast majority of the demographics. And while Avocado Heights has a prominent identity and agency of its own, its characteristics are as interpretable as the river.

“Rancho Jimenez”

“Mis tíos”

Wading through the river, vaqueros interact with assemblages of making and being. Contested sites, specific histories, and cultural exchanges emerge and submerge in expression of power and resistance. Though we can abstract histories and narratives from the photo, “Riding in the River” is material. The photograph is now a part of Whittier Narrows’ ecology. It is a fragment of the location, both as a living portal and as artifact. It would not exist if not for its historical contingency. Despite attempts at cultural erasure or despite the elision from regional, state, or national narratives, Avocado Heights is immutable. Photographs expose. They are taken, putting moments, people, and places into focus.

“Colitas”

Transnational Desfile

“Community desfile”
“la paseada patron saint festival in Avocado Heights”

“Community desfile” and “la paseada patron saint festival AH style” are celebrations of the patron saint festival, La Paseada. Celebrated in Avocado Heights annually, this is the second biggest event in Avocado Heights Park after the Easter celebration. Romo says, “Starting a few years ago after a group of different families in the area formed an association to raise money and connect with their loved ones back home by several individuals who were undocumented and unable to visit their home communities.” The organizers of the event originate from Las Palmas, Jalisco and like most patron saint festivals, these are religious celebrations that coincide with the whole community having the week off.

The celebration in Las Palmas is known for having a large cabalgata to inaugurate the event, Romo continues, “Given that this is horse country, we all join in their festivities in the Avocado Heights version as if we are there in Las Palmas for the week.” Along with the tamborazo, a reina usually carries the American and Mexican flag while following an altar containing the patron saint. The Independence celebrations in Yahualica, Jalisco are on September 16, 2016. The celebrations in Avocado Heights and among the equestrian community, at times, closely resemble the celebrations in Mexico.

“Industry Expo feria de caballo español”

It is not uncommon for the escaramuzas and charros of the San Gabriel Valley to compete with some frequency down in Mexico, or to attend an annual coleadero at their ranch, and then to come back to the US and give an update to their family and group of friends about the latest community gossip, who’s the leading equestrian athlete, and what musical group headlined the event.  For being a relatively small neighborhood, Avocado Heights epitomizes in many ways this unique bilateral relationship with Mexico. These are not relationships that exist because parents grew up in a particular place, but rather, these are relationships that are constantly reinforced by the consistent back and forth travel that occurs for recurring events, such as patron saint festivals or independence celebrations.

“Privadita”
“Filming a music video”

Vaquerx Ephemera

“Horse Parade in Jalisco”

On September 16, 2016, in the city streets of Yahualica, Jalisco, Romo joins a cabalgata underway. The vaquera centered in the photo is Nadia. And while she doesn’t announce her sexuality publicly, she is widely known in the horse community for being a prominent fixture at horse events and is often seen accompanied by her partner. Romo explains, “After marching on horseback in the parade, Nadia hired the banda and it was myself and one other escaramuza, kind of a protege of Nadia’s, who joined her for an impromptu parade once again throughout the town.” Nadia was not dressed in the typical escaramuza outfit, but rather a charro outfit. “She triumphantly led us on a long-winded post-march route with a loaded gun in her holster. It was a very public and triumphant display and I just had to document the photo.”

In Nadia’s story we have a unique exposure to the dimensions of gender embodiment and representation in vaquerx culture. She is both a leader and yet presents herself in traditional charro outfits. Likewise, her partnership, according to Romo, remains a discretionary fact. It is no doubt the case that vaquero culture celebrates and predominantly exhibits traditional masculine traits. Yet, it is and historically has been a space and identity that has opened gender fluidity and resistance. Across the United States and in Mexico, vaquerx spaces foster hetero-, homo-, and transsexual performance. Massive conventions occur every year in cities including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Dallas, and Mexico City which host queer reuniones vaqueros. The events feature live performance combined with regional Mexican food, drink, music, and dancing. Though these conventions are unique, they also amplify the reality of the vaquero/a/x everyday—one present in Avocado Heights. Romo, who established his ranch in Avocado Heights as a queer space for artists and vaquerx, disrupts masculinized narratives in his photographs’ style and through his positionality.

Historian Susan Stryker argued that gender representation is analogous to a digital image. She writes, “It’s unclear exactly how [a digital image] is related to the world of physical objects. It doesn’t point to some ‘real’ thing… it might in fact be a complete fabrication built up pixel by pixel or bit by bit—but a fabrication that nevertheless exists as an image or a sound as real as any other.” Like the digital image, gender is a construction, not a material fact. Pixel by pixel, bit by bit, the bodily stylings through clothing and accessories, a person’s behaviors and interactions, their movements, dancing, songs, vocal utterances, and expressions add up to the mix of gender, sexuality, class, race, ethnicity, and nationality identifications present in vaquerx lifestyles.

Away from the recursive performance of male bodies in vaquero spaces, Romo shares that out on the trails, men transcend typical male behaviors and share intimate details and stories about their lives with each other over bonfires. They exhibit acts of care, play, and bonding that transmute traditional male roles. Heteronormative behavior characteristics are often found to be more fluid where the binary gender model of nuclear family orientation is out of the picture. Men and women ride together in the desfile around the central park of Avocado Heights to show off their horses, socialize, and play. Performative gender hierarchies, though present here and there, are most often ambiguous and indeterminable within these events or settings. Vaquero/a/x practices can disrupt imposed binaries and essentialist notions through endless re-imaginings of sex/gender models, white/brown bodies, and middle class/working class lives. Vaquero/a/x performance digitizes and decolonizes the body. Like music, it blends and flows in measures and meter imperceptibly.

“Towards the San Jose Creek River Trail”

Interspecies

“Ranch in Avocado Heights”

Horses become the witness of human behavior. Witnessing their play, love, and connection, exists an entire irreducible lifeworld. The horse, the viewer from vantage of the horse, is immersed. They can grasp a sense of the embodied experience but are always in some way dispositioned. One can lament the separation, but the degrees of connection and distance are innate in every interaction, whether that is by photograph or in embracing a partner for the dance. The interaction between man and animal exposes gestural language. In behaviors between animal and human, or photographer and researcher, or dance partners are modes of interaction, coding and decoding practices, and unconscious and conscious choices.

In “The Vaquero Way” a horse trainer, Sheila Varian explains, “The Vaquero method of training is a beautiful song sung with the softness and beauty of the rhythm of the horse. It is about the total harmony and togetherness of horse and rider.”7 The process of becoming a vaquero often begins at an early age. Training involves more than the act of breaking or taming a horse, but developing a mutual relationship, a partnership with another being grown from respect. The best horses are trained over varied terrain and can navigate their surroundings through experiential learning. Feeling and unity with the horse comprise the methodology.

“Pajaretes”
“Recycled wood chips”

Like a photographer and their subject, or a historian and a past culture, animals and human beings train together to become “available to events.”8 French ethologist Jean-Claude Barrey’s analysis of this phenomenon is defined as isopraxis. To him, isopraxis articulates the “unintentional movements” of muscles that fire and contract in both horse and human at the exact same time.

“Talented riders behave and move like horses… Human bodies have been transformed by and into a horse’s body. Who influences and who is influenced, in this story, are questions that can no longer receive a clear answer. Both, human and horse, are cause and effect of each other’s movements. Both induce and are induced, affect and are affected. Both embody each other’s mind.”9

Animals and humans, like material and their environments become response-able. The interface reveals that between space and place, signifier and significant, forms lose distinction. Through iterations, intention, and idiosyncratic relations, emergent patterns evince rich cultural understandings.

“Herrero”

The complex interactive relations described between Avocado Heights’ connection with horses, their fellowship to other riders, how the vaqueros/as become innate stewards of the land, and how this connection ties history to the present situates humans, nature, and horses as central actors in the story. As anthropologist Anna Tsing argues, “Species interdependence is a well-known fact— except when it comes to humans. Human exceptionalism blinds us.”10 No matter the cultural variety available, many believe humanity, the biological human, is a constant. Instead, from molecule to ecosystem, humans reshape as they are reshaped. In considering the domestications that closely knot humans with horses and all other organisms, Tsing asks, “What if we imagined a human nature that shifted historically together with varied webs of interspecies dependence?”11 She and Haraway submit that humanity is an interspecies relationship. It is more than us. It is more than human.

With the connection to the horses, the specific natural history of the San Gabriel Valley, and continual exploitation of the community’s health, Jesús Romo’s photographs convey that we are indelibly intertwined with our environment. Our subject of human nature and what is natural has historically excluded, or marginally considered, nature as a critical element of culture and society. Human behavior is a part of natural processes and never exempt from them. Everything from viruses, evolution, mycelium, deforestation, drought, food systems, tectonic shifts, to cosmic events are essential explanations for behavior. Environmental racism through development discourse is not just material but epistemic violence. Between fact-retrieval through the modalities of linguistic conventions, embodiment and space, or nature, these are “exposures” which emancipate past stories, events, places, things, and people from the rigor of hegemonic, settler, colonial regimes. As each modality can lead one down a lifetime of research for just one subject alone, the researcher alone depends on this collaboration to make something of the findings. The intention of the project and the responsibility of its representation are most important.

Photographs, when not outright exploitative practices, almost ensure a type of embodiment or positionality less credible in alternative medias. Jesús Romo’s positionality, affiliation, and agency inspire an even greater trust in the content and intentionality in representation. Jesús Romo’s photographs are exposures of interspecies assemblage of the San Gabriel Valley.


Notes

[1] David Reid, “Whittier Narrows Park,” East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte, edited by Romeo Guzman, Caribbean Fragoza, et al. Rutgers, 2020. 191

[2] Barraclough, Laura R. Charros: How Mexican Cowboys Are Remapping Race and American Identity, 1st ed.. University of California Press, 2019. 164

[3] Barraclough, Charros, 159

[4] Kara L. Stewart. ”The Vaquero Way.” Horse Illustrated. November 16, 2004

[5] Donna Haraway. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2008.

[6] Vinciane Despret. ”The Body We Care For: Figures of Anthropo-zoo-genesis.” Body & Society. Vol. 10(2–3): 111–134. DOI: 10.1177/1357034X04042938

[7] Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. Friction: an Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005. [8] Ibid.

Daniel Talamantes is a writer from the Central Valley of California. He is working toward a doctorate at Claremont Graduate University currently as an environmental historian, ethnographer, and environmental justice activist. Essays, short stories, and poems of his have been published with Entropy, Elderly, SF Chronicle, Soft Punk, to name a few. His first poetry chapbook Ruminate Emergent was the winner of the Desert Pavilion Chapbook Series and set to be published Fall 2022. 

Jesús Romo is an activist, photographer, and resident of Avocado Heights. You can find him on the trails and fighting for clean air, water, and land with and for SGV residents.

ArticlesPhotography/Art

The Gravity of Things: Grounding landscape parliaments in California’s borderlands

Karl Kullmann

Rolling down under: protesting the proposed fencing off of the people’s hill at New Parliament House, Canberra, Australia. Image credit: Lukas Coch / AAP, reproduced with permission.

An imaginative form of protest took place on the other side of the world in 2017 as some Australians took to rolling down grassy slopes at the heart of the nation’s capital of Canberra.[1] Although it appeared lighthearted, the motivations of these tumbling citizens were quite serious. They were rolling down Parliament Hill, situated at the heart of Canberra’s constellation of avenues and topographic landmarks. They were rolling to exercise an egalitarian ideal that was originally embedded in the design of the New Parliament House.

When conceptualizing the design in the 1980s, the New Parliament House architect Romaldo Giurgola sought to place the people above the parliament, rather than subservient to it. While this ideal has since been expressed in other parliaments—such as Foster and Partner’s gravity defying ramp that spirals above the Reichstag in Berlin—the design for Australia’s Parliament took the radical approach of burying the parliamentary chambers beneath a publicly accessible grassy knoll. This fusion of parliament and landscape sought to embrace the aspirations of all inhabitants and their interdependence with the timeless landscapes of the Island Continent.

The people’s hill: New Parliament House, Canberra, Australia. Image credit: John Gollings, reproduced with permission.

As landscape poetics go, it is a beautiful notion. Yet it is also selective, in the sense that First Australians have never identified with, or felt included in, the narrative of the people’s hill. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy, which for almost half a century has continuously occupied the lawn at the foot of Australia’s Parliament House, embodies this implicit exclusion.[2]

This exclusion remains unresolved, with global events overtaking Giurgola’s egalitarian gesture after little more than a quarter of a century in the ground. The concept of the people’s hill was initially eroded with the tightening of security following the trauma of September 11, 2001. Then, in September 2017, the object of the people’s protest materialized: a nine-foot high welded steel security fence was erected around the hill to finish the job once and for all.[3] By sealing the knoll—and its legislature—off from its citizens, the new fence invokes a fortified medieval hill town that has shut the gate on its hinterland.

Shutting the gate on the people’s hill: fencing off New Parliament House, Canberra, Australia. Image credit: Kym Smith / Newspix, reproduced with permission.

And so, the people roll no more. As is also evident in the worldwide barricading of public space to repel vehicular terrorism, fencing off Australia’s Landscape Parliament is deeply symbolic. It reveals a feedback loop, whereby political systems are pushed further and further away, even as the ideal encapsulated in the people’s hill would seem ever more relevant to many political predicaments on other continents, including here in California.

To comprehend why a landscape parliament in the land Down Under was worth rolling for—and why it is relevant to California—entails venturing a thousand years back in time to Iceland.  The land of ice and fire is steeped in geysers, glaciers, volcanoes, and Sagas. Amidst this storied landscape lies Iceland’s most hallowed ground, where from the year 930 to 1798, Thingvellir (Þingvellir) served as the dramatic venue for the world’s first parliament. Unlike the climate-controlled buildings that house contemporary political forums, Iceland’s parliament was held out under the open sky. Each year, Icelanders gathered amid the rocky fissures formed by diverging tectonic plates to discuss important matters of concern.[4]

Site of the ancient landscape parliament of Thingvellir, Iceland. Image credit: Karl Kullmann.

In reference to its topographic setting, the name Þingvellir translates loosely as meeting valley in English. And while the correlation between vellir and valley is evident, understanding the other half of the name is more complicated. Although Þing is etymologically connected to the English word thing, it is unlike anything we know today. In Old Norse, Þings referred to landscape-based forums for discussing important community matters. Indeed, while the dramatic setting and near millennium of constant use make Thingvellir the most celebrated example, Thing parliaments were established in many locations throughout the Viking world. Their names live on in places such as Gulating in Norway, Tingwalla in Sweden, Tinganes in the Faroe Islands, Tingwall in Shetland and Orkney, and Tynwald on the Isle of Man.

The etymology of Þing can also be traced further back to the ancient Germanic proto-parliamentary Ding.[5] Referring to a general assembly or court of law in Old High German, Dings were often sited in topographically prominent locations that typically included megaliths, springs, or distinctive trees. These meanings were also absorbed into English, with traces of Þing and Ding still retained in thing, in the sense that we might say that someone “knows a thing or two” to imply that they comprehend the issues at hand.[6]

But these traces hang by a thread. In today’s industrialized world, we are far more likely to understand things as the many inanimate objects that surround us with our own indifference. Today, things are just the peripheral stuff that we overlook and often can’t be bothered to call by name. We might run an errand to “buy some things” or observe that we “forgot something.” And as the Internet of Things vaporizes our interaction with everyday appliances into the Cloud, our collective ambivalence towards things seems destined to increase.

Dispensing with things. Self Portrait as Revealed by Trash: 365 days of photographing everything I threw out, gallery exhibit, 2004-2008, Tim Gaudreau. Image credit: Tim Gaudreau, reproduced with permission.

To understand why the language of things changed so profoundly over the centuries—from the discussion of important matters to the trivialization of dispensable objects—entails travelling again. Even as Thingvellir’s parliament continued to operate within the unique and isolated landscapes of Iceland, things were subject to new forces of transformation in Continental Europe. As Europe modernized and political control centralized, the process of land enclosure began to displace the feudal commons that Thing parliaments had traditionally occupied. With no place left in the landscape, Thing parliaments moved undercover, and in time, into the fully enclosed buildings that inhabitants of the industrialized world take for granted today.[7]

In addition to parliaments, other culturally significant forums such as markets, performance spaces, and religious ceremonies also came in from the cold. Extrapolating this process to the present day, enclosure takes the form of industrially scaled agriculture within endless fields of climate-controlled hydroponic greenhouses.

The Sea of Plastic: the fully enclosed agricultural landscape of Mar del Plástico, Almeria, Spain.  Image credit: George Steinmetz, reproduced with permission.

Whereas Things once referred to landscape-based community assemblies for discussing important issues, the enclosure of these forums led to things becoming understood more as the objects that surround them. With things now conceived more as objects than as issues, this shift also had profound implications for conceptions of landscape. Divested of its thingness, the landscape became more of a passive receptacle of physical things than a political Thing inherently.[8] So much so, that today it is hard to imagine landscape in any other way than as a benign scene or as ‘threatened’ nature in need of human assistance.

In this world, the landscape bears the scars of objects and events, but no longer takes a seat in the parliament that it once cultivated. And despite the promise of a seamless globe in which humans, capital, and wildebeest move without friction, the landscape is riven with more fissures than ever before.[9] These divisions take the form of walls between nation states, infrastructural ruptures within communities, socio-economic inequality, fragmentation of ecological biomes, and so forth.

Gathering at the edges: migrants attempting to cross the Macedonian Border from Greece, 2015. Image credit: Nikos Arvanitidis, reproduced with permission.

And yet, many of the most pressing issues that define the present Age of the Anthropocene transcend these barriers with impunity.[10] Walls do not readily circumscribe global warming, nuclear radiation, antibiotic resistance, non-biodegradable plastics, or global human migration. And unlike the everyday things that surround us all, these hyper-things are so vast and enduring that they often defy human scales of comprehension. They reveal a yawning gulf between our hazy awareness of the things that matter and our limited capacity to discuss, let alone address them.[11]

What to do? The issue here is one of horizons. From within houses of legislature or parliament, our shared political horizons are simply too inhibited to accommodate the scale and scope of the Anthropocene. In response, a city, a state, a nation, or even a coalition of nations, may seek to construct more expansive parliaments under which to gather ever-larger political assemblies.[12] And yet, even if these forums were to rival in enormity the largest sporting stadiums on Earth, they would still be buildings. And as buildings, they remain historically bound to the enclosure of political gatherings, and subsequent diminishment of Things into things.

For all their proficiency in keeping the rain out and the politicians in, buildings can never truly become Things. How, then, might the ancient conception of the landscape parliament be re-imagined to stretch our shared political horizons in order to more adequately encompass contemporary matters of concern? That is, how might some of the lost agency of landscape be rediscovered within the political process? How might some of the Thingness of things be recovered?

This is not to imply that Californians begin dissolving Capitol Hills and City Halls and repatriating venues of governance out into the landscape in a futile attempt at refashioning Thingvellir. It is not possible to just go back and recreate Things because the nature of contemporary political processes and assemblies has profoundly changed. To take Things literally in this way would probably just add to the assortment of unused public amphitheaters that unwittingly reify nostalgic yearnings for community congregations of yesteryear.

Taking Things literally: abandoned amphitheater, Foster Park, Ventura County, California. Image credit: Karl Kullmann.

Nor is cultivating Thingness in landscape akin to invoking some form of animism that imbues inanimate objects with a mystical life force. And to be clear, re-connecting landscape and politics has nothing to do with the “blood and soil” that the Third Reich used to such catastrophic effect by weaponizing the power of place on an industrial scale. What it is about is feeling connected to a process. It is about leveraging the public landscape to embolden the public in politics.[13]

To begin this process, the first instinct may be to take down the fences. De-fencing parliaments and legislatures would be a revolution of sorts. It suggests comparisons with the eighteenth and nineteenth century process of dis-parking, whereby the royal hunting grounds of Europe were gradually opened up to public use.[14] This process was initiated by unlocking the gates, and ultimately—as Californians now take for granted in city parks that remain open 24/7—demolishing the boundary walls altogether.

If we return Down Under for a moment and think through dis-parking Australia’s freshly fortified landscape parliament, the flaw in this venture becomes apparent. To remain functional in the current climate, new, more sophisticated, invisible, and insidious forms of security would almost inevitably emerge to offset a de-fenced the house of the legislature. Albeit at a vaster scale, this phenomenon is demonstrated along the US southern border. From California to Texas, the heavily surveilled and profiled 100-mile-wide thickened zone that shadows the border puts fences and walls in context; material expressions of a more pervasive filtering process that occurs before a traveler even knows they have arrived and persists long after they think they have left.

And as the deplorable scenes from the January 2021 breaching of the US Capitol demonstrate, even the most hallowed ramparts can be scaled with sufficient incitement. As at the border, the walls of the Capitol proved more performative than impervious; something reassuringly concrete to assail as a diversion from thinking though what one hopes to accomplish once inside. Here, as at Australia’s parliament, walls and fences are a symptom not a cause. The parliament’s fence is going to remain somewhere; if not encircling the building in full view, then as a thickened zone on the margins, or, more perniciously, as a wall in the minds of those who feel shut out from the political process.[15]

US/Mexico border zone, Jacumba Hot Springs, California. Image credit: Karl Kullmann.

Instead of deconstructing the walls and roofs of official houses of parliament and legislature of the State (only for other more pervasive barriers to raise in their place), a more constructive path could lay in devolving landscape parliaments as parallel processes. That is, perhaps the role of landscape Things today is not to be reprised as (non)representative parliaments for making laws, but to operate as moral shadow parliaments for discussing the issues that really matter; issues that dithering bricks-and-mortar parliaments and legislatures seem to habitually forfeit under the weight of earmarks and the fog of obfuscation.

With Things no longer satisfactorily represented in conventional parliaments and legislatures, where might these shadow landscape parliaments be situated? Perhaps everywhere and nowhere, in the sense that today a great deal of political assembly occurs in online forums that transcend borders and censors. But being digitally untethered from time and place has the significant downside of conveniently enabling individuals to insulate themselves from divisive issues within polarized online communities.

Yet even as social media spins its wheels, when people really need their voices heard, they still take to the streets on foot. If these issue-driven gatherings are to stick for any longer than an outrage-news-cycle, momentarily occupying the frictionless ground of polished airport foyers and online echo chambers is insufficient.[16] To stop Things from just slipping away into a capsicum haze of unfulfilled aspirations, landscape shadow parliaments would need to somehow lodge into the fissures that permeate everyday Californian environments. The Occupy Wall Street movement in New York and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Australia’s capital Canberra are recent and continuing precedents for this enduring act of literally digging in on an issue.[17]

Interstitial spaces in Northern California, (top) freeway teardown in Hayes Valley, San Francisco, and (bottom) freeway easement in Santa Rosa, California. Image credit: Karl Kullmann.

Although often overlooked in our individual cognitive maps, California’s cultural landscapes are riven with local borderlands that cleave between neighborhoods, discordant land-uses, maintained and derelict sites, and most insidiously, between planning visions and their lived reality.[18]

In many situations, agencies or communities have valid rationales and useful mechanisms with which to heal rifts in the urban fabric. Consider, for example, the re-stitching of San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood following the demolition of the earthquake damaged double-tiered Central Freeway. Yet in other circumstances, adjacent locales march to decidedly different tunes. Consider a neighbourhood ‘on the other side of the tracks’ that is vulnerable to runaway change when the tracks are sunken or removed. Richmond’s Iron Triangle, which circumscribes an underprivileged neighborhood in the shadow of the oil refinery, encapsulates this condition.

In certain circumstances, this latter type of linear no-man’s-land could provide fertile sites for snagging shadow landscape parliaments. Dug into these thin borderland situations, landscape Things could be configured to thicken the jump-cut between two conditions with a third space that is neither one, nor the other. Here, ancient Thingvellir is instructive, with the geological fissures of the Icelandic setting cleaving space between local clans, into which the parliament occupied an interstitial every-man’s-land over which no single clan held jurisdiction.

The parliament of tears: Friendship Park, California/Mexico border at the Pacific Ocean. Image credit: Karl Kullmann.

While California’s coastal conurbations are riddled with manmade fissures that suggest potential thickening into landscape Things, one of most potent (and confounding) sites surely lies at the State’s southernmost edge. Friendship Park straddles the US/Mexico border on the last high ground before the border fence spills down into the surf.[19] As one of the few locations where in-person cross-border interaction is condoned for a few hours on weekends, Friendship Park is a place of family reunions, mixed emotions, sit-in protests and coordinated trans-border activities. Twin fences define the site; one on the border, and a second inside US soil. This second fence is furnished with a disproportionately monumental gateway that promises thoroughfare but leads only to no-man’s-land.

Considered in the context of other heavily fortified no-man’s lands in urban areas, one may continue to hope for a future ‘Berlin moment,’ whereby the fortification of California’s southern border is eventually demolished as a relic of history.[20] But in the meantime, working within current geopolitical realities, how might a site such as Friendship Park be thickened into a third space? How might the fledgling aspirations Friendship Park be amplified into a landscape Thing?

At present, the challenges of the site and situation are immense. The fences are too insistent, admission to the controlled no-man’s-land too selective, and the shared horizon glistening out across the Pacific Ocean too bittersweet. Indeed, as the semantic distinction between fences and walls becomes increasingly partisan, the border ‘fence’ at Friendship Park is now so heavily armored with welded mesh—leaving apertures barely wider than a human finger—that it is, in substance, already a ‘wall.’

And although walls ably defended territories for thousands of years, their presence today is decidedly regressive.[21] In the sixteenth century, as medieval fortifications proved increasingly ineffective against advancements in ballistic technology, horizontal defensive earthworks supplanted vertical masonry walls. Reaching its zenith in Europe’s Renaissance star forts, this strategy can still be explored today in the Batteries that were built along the California coast in the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, the advent of long-range ballistics pushed defensive earthworks to new extremes. As threats materialized from over the horizon in every direction, people retreated underground, relying on the thickness and shape of the land as their primary mode of defense.

Battery Cavallo, Fort Baker, California, circa 1938. Image credit: National Archives and Records Administration, Aerial Photographs Collection, image in the public domain.

This brief fortification primer illuminates the superiority of strategically shaped landform over masonry walls and reinforced fences. By shifting this capability from a defensive to a public conception of space, the shaping of landscape thickness becomes an intriguing proposition. Through the medium of land shaping, what form could a shadow landscape forum at Friendship Park—or elsewhere—take?

Mounding the landscape up into a hill would seem the obvious answer. As was (until recently) possible on Australia’s Parliament House hill, Californians from all walks of life may seek to fabricate the moral high ground from which to better foresee and understand the expansive issues at hand. If the concept of a political horizon is conflated with the physical horizon (as formed by the curvature of the earth), climbing a hill would appear to expand one’s horizons, allowing each of us to see more things—to literally see over the wall.

To take things to the next level, those who are so inclined could go a little higher in the basket of a hot air balloon and expand their political horizons a little further. Or, they could liftoff into the low Earth-orbit of the International Space Station and see what satellites see. Or, like the astronauts on Apollo 17, travel halfway to the moon to catch the lonely blue marble within the single frame of a Hasselblad; revealing that the whole Earth is itself a thing, albeit one that no human can see both sides of at the same time. In the sense that this epiphany energized the environmental movement, humanity has been metaphorically trying to get back down to Earth ever since.[22]

The Earth becomes a thing: Southern California and Mexico seen from the International Space Station. Image credit: © 2011 NASA, ISS, reproduced in accordance with NASA/ISS non-commercial use policy.

The point is that the higher an individual goes, the more likely they are to feel as though they are on top of things. And yet, from up on the hill (or space station) their horizons defer further outwards, circumscribing more and more issues while leaving them no closer to grasping or acting on the issues that matter. But what if this yearning to climb is upended, and instead of seeking landscape Things up on hills, we think of Things as forming down in hollows? Once again, ancient Thingvellir offers guidance here, with the geologically fissured Icelandic landscape providing a range of crevices that drew in gatherings of varied scale and scope within their embrace.

Through the organizational pull of gravity, hollows instinctively collect things. Consider the dunes on the floor of California’s Death Valley, where over the eons each grain of sand made its way to a gathering of like-minded grains at the lowest point in North America. Or in a more general sense, consider how water—access to which is a defining wall-crossing issue of the twenty-first century—converges fluidly into hollowed out landforms.

And like the water that makes up about 60 percent of our bodily mass, hollows can also collect humans. If the people rolling off Australia’s parliament hill were to repeat their mass tumble from the rim of a hollow, they would all end up drawn together at the bottom. What they may find there could be confronting, since hollows have also served historically as dumping grounds; as places where all the things that humans discard end up, out of sight and out of mind. It turns out that many of these things are still there, decaying on a geological timescale. Confronted with these things, the parliamentary hollow impels its occupants to recall; not in the sense of officially ordering someone (such as a Governor) to return, but in the other sense of bringing an event or situation back into one’s mind.[23]

Hollows foreground these things by compressing space and time by retraining the horizons of those who enter them. When going down into a hollow, everyone’s personal horizon temporarily retracts to the rim of the concave landform.[24] A kind of horizonal hand-over occurs, whereby instead of retreating unceasingly into the distance (and off into the future) as each individual moves around, the horizon stays tethered to the landform. As a result, everyone in the hollow sees the same horizon. That is, they share a collective horizon with the many other things—human, non-human, and inanimate—that are gathered in the present moment.

Gathering things: the horizon as formed by the curvature of the Earth from (top to bottom) on the plain; up on the hill; and down in the hollow. Image credit: Karl Kullmann.

The other thing about hollows is that they leak. Through either infiltration or evaporation, hollow landforms leak water (otherwise they would become lakes), and unfortunately hollows often leak toxins when associated with dumping grounds. Yet in a positive sense, hollows also potentially leak people and ideas. In contrast to the illusion of a hermetically sealed leak-proof house of parliament, the landscape parliament shaped as a hollow makes no claims to being watertight. Unlike a wall or fence, the rim that encircles the hollow landform remains permeable. Freed of the limitations that architectural containment places on access and participation, humans, along with many other things, can cross over this topographic threshold and gather to discuss matters of concern. And when the time for discussion has passed and the time for action is present, they can move back over the collective threshold and leave.

Outside of the hollow, the Earth’s horizon comes back into focus and the wider world, with its myriad issues, comes back into play. Out here individuals are potentially primed to extend issues of concern beyond a preoccupation with their own and immediate futures, which from ecological crises to genetic design, encompass vast and miniscule scales and temporalities.

However, potential does not necessarily translate into actuality. While this can be true in any situation, it is doubly so in the landscape. Whereas the programmatic capacity of buildings is reasonably predictable, predetermining the usefulness of a landscape in advance remains an imprecise art.[25] Buildings have doors and roofs with which to encapsulate and regulate the activities of their occupants. Landscape, on the other hand, is less obliging; think of landscape in terms of the vagaries of the weather upon which it is beholden, or in terms of the indeterminate flow of the rivers that run through it.

Fluid horizons: “View of Sacramento City as it appeared during the great inundation in January 1850 / Drawn from nature by Geo. W. Casilear & Henry Bainbridge. New York : Lith. of Sarony c1850.” Source: California State Library, image in the public domain.

The landscape’s inherent uncertainty can be extended to humans, who often do not adopt landscapes in the way in which planners intended. Part of this is undoubtedly down to the preponderance of poorly designed public spaces (in California and elsewhere) that fail both functionally and expressively. Yet even with the best intentions, landscapes can fall flat. In this context, expecting landscape parliaments to routinely perform as places for actual discussion could backfire. The weight of expectation could create intimidating spaces that people completely avoid, unwittingly adding to the existing trove of empty amphitheaters.

Instead of pressuring landscape things to be routinely parliamentary from the outset, perhaps their role needs to be initiated in more down to earth terms. Positioned more humbly, landscape Things would principally seek to simply collect people in situ, essentially drawing each of us out of our internet of things and into the shared world of Things. Once drawn—like moths to a lamp—into the public realm, we are more likely to participate in, and engage with, the issues (or things) that concern us all.

Drawn together: groups around bonfires on Ocean Beach, San Francisco. Image credit: Kim Komenich / San Francisco Chronicle / Polaris, reproduced with permission.

From this unassuming basis, in certain situations where particularly potent matters of concern converge on the ground, contemporary landscape Things might emerge. While there is a great deal of indeterminacy involved, we can assume that these Things are unlikely to leaven on Capitol hills. Just as legislatures and issues are not progressing, forums and gatherings are not aligning. The forums that govern Californians are fixed at the center, on the hill, while the gatherings that matter dig in at the edges, in the fissures. It is here that shadow landscape parliaments are at most likely to be at home.

Given that they are not tied to the conventional apparatuses of federal, state, or local governance, to which other scales might landscape shadow parliaments extend? And, in addition to Friendship Park, where else in California might these reimagined landscape shadow parliaments (Things) be dispersed? As nature and politics increasingly converge, perhaps Things might draw within their horizons each of the world’s 867 bioregions, ten of which intersect with California.[26] Or, across the Sierras, perhaps Landscape Parliaments might grip onto the salty banks of the overdrawn Mono Lake, stripped of inflows that are gravity-fed southbound along the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Or, as traditional zoological gardens become less and less defensible, Things might colonize the naturalistic habitats of decommissioned animal exhibits in San Francisco zoo.

Drawn to the edge: Sunken City, Sn Pedro, California. Image credit: Karl Kullmann.

Or, perhaps the position of Landscape Parliaments might be calibrated to sea level rise projections: not safely on higher ground, but at the waterline near vulnerable communities such as East Palo Alto, to be intentionally inundated as a wet-feet reality check on rising tides. Or, find niches amidst the fragmented ruins of the aptly named Sunken City near Long Beach, where buildings and streets slumped into the Pacific Ocean. Or, ride the precipice of vanishing ground, by convening Things on the concrete pads of recently demolished buildings atop Pacifica’s rapidly receding cliff line. Or, inhabit the new ground that results when landfill is decommissioned, such as that of the Albany Bulb wasteland that protrudes into the tidelands of San Francisco Bay’s eastern shore.

By gathering Californians together within the contours of these settings, Landscape Things might help us to recall the gravity of the things that matter, nearer to where they matter.


Notes

[1] Editorial, ‘Australians Roll Down Lawns of Parliament House to Protest Against Fence’ (17 December 2016), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-38349994.

[2] Gregory Cowan, ‘Collapsing Australian Architecture: The Aboriginal Tent Embassy’, Journal of Australian Studies 25/67 (2001): 30–36.

[3] Henry Belot, ‘Parliament House’s Iconic Grass Lawns Blocked Off by New Security Fences’ (11 September 2017), http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-09-12/security-fences-shut-patrons-out-parliament-house-grassy-slopes/8896074.

[4] Agust Gudmundsson, ‘Tectonics of the Thingvellir Fissure Swarm, SW Iceland’, Journal of Structural Geology 9/1 (1987): 61–69.  Richard Beck, ‘Iceland’s Thousand Year Old Parliament’, Scandinavian Studies and Notes 10/5 (1929): 149–153.

[5] See Kenneth R. Olwig, ‘Liminality, Seasonality and Landscape’, Landscape Research 30/2 (2005): 259–271.

[6] Here I draw on Martin Heidegger, ‘The Thing’, in: Albert Hofstadter (trans.), Poetry Language Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 161–180, at 173.

[7] See Álvaro Sevilla-Buitrago, ‘Urbs in Rure: Historical Enclosure and the Extended Urbanization of the Countryside’, in: Neil Brenner (ed.), Implosions / Explosions (Berlin: Jovis Verlag, 2014), 236–259.

[8] See Kenneth R. Olwig, ‘Heidegger, Latour and the Reification of Things: The Inversion and Spatial Enclosure of the Substantive Landscape of Things–The Lake District Case’, Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 95/3 (2013): 251–273, at 256.

[9] See Karl Kullmann, ‘Route Fittko: Tracing Walter Benjamin’s Path of No Return”, Ground Up (Delineations) 5 (2016): 70–75.

[10] In the current epoch that Paul Crutzen famously labelled the Anthropocene, human activity is permanently recorded in the geological record. Paul J. Crutzen, ‘The “Anthropocene”’, in Eckart Ehlers and Thomas Krafft (eds.), Earth System Science in the Anthropocene (Berlin & Heidelberg: Springer 2006), 13–18.

[11] Here I draw on Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

[12] Here I draw on Bruno Latour, ‘From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik or How to Make Things Public’, in Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 4–31. Bruno Latour, ‘A Cautious Prometheus?’ Keynote lecture for the Networks of Design meeting of the Design History Society, Falmouth, Cornwall, 3 September 2008.

[13] The public landscape is not limited to the bucolic countryside or the protected wilderness. Today it also includes the burgeoning urban landscape: the streets, the parks, the appropriated interstitial spaces, the postindustrial wastelands, the cultural precincts, and even the external surfaces of buildings.

[14] The archaic verb dispark means to ‘divest a park of its private use’ by ‘throw[ing] parkland open.’ Charles Talbut Onions (ed.), The Shorter English Dictionary on Historical Principals (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), 530.

[15] This is a reference to the Mauer im Kopf (the wall in the head), that persists in the psycho-geographies of Berliners long after the fall of the concrete Berlin Wall.

[16] This is a reference to the spontaneous airport demonstrations that followed the Trump administration’s January 2017 Muslim travel ban.

[17] For a site-specific mapping of an Occupy site, see Jonathan Massey and Brett Snyder, ‘Occupying Wall Street: Places and Spaces of Political Action: Surveying a Hypercity Built of Granite and Asphalt, Algorithms And Information’, Places Journal (September 2012), https://placesjournal.org/article/occupying-wall-street-places-and-spaces-of-political-action/.

[18] See Karl Kullmann, ‘Thin Parks / Thick Edges: Towards a Linear Park Typology for (Post)infrastructural Sites’, Journal of Landscape Architecture 6/2 (2011): 70–81.

[19] For in depth explorations of the Mexico/US borderlands, see Michael Dear, ‘Imagining a Third Nation: US-Mexico Border’, Ground Up (Delineations) 5 (2016): 46–55.

[20] For a distinctly theological perspective on the California border in relationship to California citizenship, see Jason S. Sexton, ‘Borders and Barriers: Citizenship in California’, in Kirsteen Kim and Alexia Salvatierra (eds.), Los Angeles as a Global Crossroads: Migration, Transnationalism, and Faith (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2022), 131–150.

[21] The return of border walls has revived some decidedly medieval devices for their circumvention in the form of ladders, catapults and tunnels.

[22] On the cultural impact of the whole earth image, see Denis Cosgrove, Geography and Vision: Seeing, Imagining and Representing the World (London: I.B. Taurus, 2008), chapter 1.

[23] As defined by The Oxford English Dictionary: Second Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

[24] See James J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (Hillsdale NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1986).

[25] See Karl Kullmann, ‘The Usefulness of Uselessness: Towards a Landscape Framework for Un-activated Urban Public Space’, Architectural Theory Review 19/2 (2015): 154–173.

[26] As classified by the World Wide Fund for Nature, bioregions are ecologically and geographically distinct areas.

Karl Kullmann is a landscape architect, urban designer, and Associate Professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning, University of California, Berkeley.

Articles

Roadside Art in the “Salad Bowl of the World:” How Agricultural Ideology Obscures Racial Capitalism and Inhibits Labor Reform

Tracy Perkins

            Drivers passing through the Salinas Valley from the San Francisco Bay Area to San Louis Obispo, Santa Barbara and points further south see a visually beautiful landscape. Strawberries, lettuce or artichokes stretch in neat rows to the base of steep hills blanketed with grasses that, depending on season, are colored alternately emerald green or golden. If the drivers notice workers in the fields, they will likely be small, distant figures who are quickly passed. In the place of actual workers, however, drivers may see one of the many attractive, larger-than-life cutout billboard murals of farmers and farmworkers.

            The farm fields that form the paintings’ backdrops make up the “salad bowl of the world,” so-named for the region’s export-intensive cool weather crops. The people depicted look happy with their work. They are painted in bright, sunny colors, and stand alone or in groups of two or three. Press coverage of the billboard art describes it as celebrating the region’s agricultural economy and its people (Pogash 2005; Roth 2013). But there is more to these images, and to California agricultural history, than first meets the eye. By alternately obscuring the existence of farmworkers or suggesting to the broader population that farmworkers are happy and well-treated, this art draws on long-standing agricultural ideologies to sustain racial capitalism and inhibit organizing, ultimately rendering agriculture’s reform more difficult.

Image 1: Billboard mural of “field man” Bob Lyman holding sliced head of lettuce. Vernon Morris provides scale. Photo by Tracy Perkins. Mural by John Cerney.

            Most of the cut-out billboard murals are painted by Salinas based artists John Cerney and Dong Sun Kim. Their murals often depict specific people, either current or past owners or workers at the farms where the billboards are displayed. Cerney grew up in the Salinas Valley, where he worked in the post-harvest lettuce industry before getting a college degree in art. He has been painting giant cutout billboard people since the 1990s, and estimates that he has completed about 300 in his career, 30-40 of which are scattered around Monterey County, where the Salinas Valley is located (Chatfield 2018; Roth 2013). Most of his work is commissioned by business owners, organizations and sometimes individuals, but as his career has matured he has also begun creating murals of his own design that he donates to towns around the country (Chatfield 2018).

            There is little information available in the public sphere about Kim. He is a self-taught artist who emigrated to the Salinas Valley from Seol, Korea. His youthful art depicted nature scenes, but as he got older, he developed an interest in “all things American.” (Indeed, much of Cerney and Kim’s work fits into the larger category of Americana). Kim fed this interest by reading US history books and watching cowboy movies (Robinson 2012). After his emigration, he collaborated with Cerney for a time on Cerney’s cut-out billboard murals, and now paints these and other murals on his own.

Image 2: Farmers and their artichokes. Photo by Tracy Perkins. Mural artist unknown.

            The Salinas Valley billboard people draw on familiar visual themes. For example, Image 2 shows two happy, friendly older white men. One has one arm casually around the other man, while his other hand, wedding ring visible, rests on the sign behind which they are placed. The other man holds three plump artichokes. Both wear old-fashioned glasses and coveralls with the “Ocean Mist” logo sewn onto the breasts. The billboard is painted in an Americana style reminiscent of the 1950s that evoke values of honesty, hard work, and thrift. The men’s weathered, smiling faces tap into agrarian tropes that suggest pride in work done well and according to the season’s changing patterns, and life in tight-knit rural communities in which people are both independent and yet also supportive of their neighbors when trouble strikes.

            As a single image, this mural could be simply a historical representation of the two men in question. But images never stand alone. This mural is in the company of other such agricultural imagery in the Salinas Valley, across the nation, and indeed in food products at grocery stores seemingly everywhere. The regularity with which such happy, white, old-timey farmers appear in agricultural imagery is what signals that something larger than individual artistry is at work. In this case, that “something larger” is ideology (Althusser 1971). More specifically, it is the ideology of Jeffersonian agrarianism combined with a more recent and overlapping form of white nostalgia.

            Ideologies are systems of ideas that either support or contest the way the world works. Dominant, or ruling ideologies combine with what Althusser calls repressive state apparatuses (i.e. the police, courts, prisons) to supp­­ort existing economic structures (capitalism) and the multiple forms of exploitation that uphold it (1971). The ideology of Jeffersonian agrarianism is foundational to the widespread tendency in the US to associate farmers with positive moral values. Thomas Jefferson saw small-scale farmers as particularly virtuous members of society. He promoted an economy based on small-scale farming combined with a weak federal government as the best foundation for a healthy democracy (Jefferson 1982). However, Jefferson’s vision was meant for free white farmers who labored on land that they owned. It excluded enslaved Africans and those who worked land owned by others. These exclusions from the category of virtuousness and democracy, were necessary to support Jefferson’s own lifestyle. Jefferson owned 13,700 acres of land and at least 187 enslaved people at the time of the US Revolutionary War (Isenberg 2016). As a “founding father” of the nation, Jefferson’s agricultural ideology also had larger significance beyond his own household, directing attention away from the enslaved Africans and African Americans whose labor provided the foundation of much US agriculture and wealth (Baptist 2014; Carney 2002; Johnson 2013). Jeffersonian agrarianism thus upheld white supremacy.

            Jefferson’s agrarian vision persists (Buttel and Flinn 1975; Wald 2011). Now, it is most explicitly called on by white advocates of small-scale, family farming (Rampell 2017). But even though Jefferson attributed unique worth to the small-scale, pre-industrial, white, land-owning farmer who supplies most labor needs with family members, his vision has also been bent to the purposes of large scale, industrialized agribusinesses owned by whites who employ vast numbers of largely non-white, non-family labor.

            The idealization of white rural life embedded in Jeffersonian agrarianism strengthened after the Civil War ended legal slavery; as the US population changed from predominantly rural to predominantly urban in the 20th century; and again in the post-Civil Rights era. In each of these moments white nostalgia informed agrarian ideologies, and racial ideologies in general. White nostalgia functions, for whites, to cast in a warm glow of memory all-white spaces of the past, or racially mixed spaces in which whites were unquestioningly at the top of racial hierarchies. As Maly, Dalmage and Michaels write, “Nostalgia is a special type of memory, one that elevates pleasurable experiences… while scrubbing away stories that are unpleasant and even shameful” (2013:758–59), such as the horrific treatment of enslaved Africans, Black sharecroppers, and, more recently, Mexican farmworkers. As a result, the valorization of white farmers and erasure of workers of color has persisted across time in art, advertising, literature and politics (Alkon and McCullen 2011; Mitchell 1996; Sackman 2005; Wald 2011, 2016). When they are not simply erased, slaves and workers of color are typically portrayed as servile, simple, happy and/or exotic in ways that serve dominant economic interests (Adamkiewicz 2016; Besky 2014; Klein 2020).

            Many of these nostalgic visions now paint dreamy visions of white life in the 1950s which, not coincidentally, was the last decade before the bulk of the legal victories of the civil rights movement took place in the 1960s. Indeed, many of the Salinas Valley’s agricultural billboards depict aesthetics and agricultural technologies from the 1950s and earlier. These revered pasts took place before the disruption of (limited) racial integration in the 1960s, and, for the white lower middle classes, the economic erosion of the 1970s and beyond.

            Romanticized depictions of white rural life and agriculture hide the foundational role of Latinx farmworkers in California; 90 percent of today’s crop-workers in California are foreign born, with only 3% self-reporting as neither Hispanic nor Latino (U.S. Department of Labor n.d.). For example, Image 3 shows a presumably white man holding a head of lettuce while kneeling next to a packed lettuce box and his trusty dog. The box of lettuce is labeled with the Dole logo. This depiction intimately associates the man in question with the packing of the lettuce. However, the man depicted was the real-life owner of an agribusiness that farmed 10,700 acres of vegetable crops in California’s Salinas and San Joaquin Valleys as well as Arizona; one of his customers was the multinational corporation Dole Food Company (Caprara 2010; Preston 2016). It is highly unlikely that business owners who are responsible for farming on this scale spend much time packing produce. And even if they did, the vast majority of the labor would still be done by the Latinx who overwhelmingly make up the California agricultural labor force.

            Ocean Mist Farms, as depicted in Image 2, is also a large enterprise: they are the largest single grower of artichokes in the US, and grow in Arizona, Mexico, and four other regions of California in addition to the Salinas Valley (Anon n.d.-b). As such, they surely rely on Latinx farmworkers, despite the two kindly-looking white men featured on their billboard, and despite whatever their labor force may have looked like in the company’s early history.

Image 3: Owner of R.C. Farms, which sells to Dole, poses next to a packed box of lettuce. Photograph by Tracy Perkins. Mural artist unknown.

            Large scale, industrial farms are not the only agricultural enterprises that regularly depict white farmers while relying substantially on Latinx labor. Smaller farms, and especially organic ones, are often associated with white family farmers and/or fair labor conditions for workers. Image 4, painted by Dong Sun Kim, shows two white people surrounded by bountiful produce (Ha 2007). The billboard depicts a man and a woman standing closely together, the man pointing the way to the farm, and the woman leaning into the man. The image suggests a couple, and therefore a family farm. At their feet, the name of a farm is printed on the side of a box full of diverse produce. A quick internet search confirms that the people depicted are indeed a couple and the real-life owners of the farm in question. They are the third generation of their family to live on the property, they farm organically, and have farmed a relatively small 50-100 acres (Anon n.d.-a).

            Like this couple, whites in the Salinas Valley billboards are usually painted in ways suggestive of a status as farmers or farm owners by being positioned standing, with farm branding, and/or without hand-tools – see also Images 2 and 3. Latinx are typically depicted actively laboring on the land, and are less likely to appear with farm branding unless they are painted doing the work of packing branded boxes – see Images 5, 6 and 7. This representation of farmers/farm owners as white and farm workers as Latinx fairly accurately represents reality. Although there are important exceptions to this trend (Jett 2020; Mihesuah and Hoover 2019; Minkoff-Zern 2019; White 2018), across the US farm owners are largely and disproportionately white and farmworkers are largely and disproportionately Latinx. This racialized distinction between farmers and farmworkers depends in part on systems put in place across history to use people racialized as “other” than white as the foundation of agricultural labor. But it also depends on other systems that prevented people of color from owning land themselves, or that disappropriated or discriminated against those who did (Daniel 2007; Jett 2020; Matsumoto 1993; Minkoff-Zern and Sloat 2017; Ng 2002).

           Still, the billboard depicted in Image 4 constructs a white understanding of farming that belies the state’s largely Latinx labor force on not just conventional but also most organic farms. In addition to the makeup of the workforce, there are also the working conditions to consider. Although consumers often assume organic farms treat their workers better, organic farms cannot be assumed to have better labor practices than conventional farms; some do, but plenty of others do not (Getz, Brown, and Shreck 2008; Guthman 2014).

Image 4: Billboard mural of the owners of Swank Farms. Photo by Tracy Perkins. Mural by Dong Sun Kim

           In obscuring the labor of Latinx workers, much of the Salinas Valley roadside agricultural art also does something more: it hides the larger economic context of racial capitalism. This concept draws attention to racism’s important role in American capitalism, which both produces and profits from racism as it has been enacted in wages, working conditions, immigration policy and labor protections, or the lack thereof (Baptist 2014; Du Bois 1999; Robinson 2005).

           A vast array of different racialized groups provided the labor on which the agricultural economy depended across California history. Indigenous peoples formed the primary agricultural labor force from colonization until the mid 1850s; first those brought from what is now the Mexican state of Baja California, and after too many of them died en route, later from what is now California. Catholic missionaries were a leading edge of colonialism, and indigenous people were not allowed to leave the missions without permission. Those who fled were often tracked down and returned by soldiers, and sometimes whipped and jailed. They were neither paid for their work, nor could they typically own personal property, marry of their own accord, move about at night, or raise their own children. The status of Indigenous farmworkers changed little after Mexican Independence, when modern day California changed hands from Spain to Mexico in 1821, nor after it changed hands again to the United States in 1846 (Street 2004). Disease and genocide decimated Indigenous populations, and survivors fled farm work.

           The Salinas Valley’s roadside agricultural art evokes the feel of small, mom-and-pop farm businesses. But the size of California agricultural enterprises was enormous almost from the start, set into place by Spanish and Mexican land policies that granted huge tracts of land to favored colonial elites (Daniel 1981).  Farmworkers, not family members, provided the labor on the majority of California’s vast farms – California was one of the few places outside of the slave south in which farming was not largely a family effort (Street 2004). California agriculture was also firmly capitalist by the time it joined the United States, with few of the subsistence or semi-subsistence farms more prevalent elsewhere.

           Workers from many other groups assumed the positions of the early indigenous farmworkers over time, including those from Asia (China, Japan, Korea, India, and the Philippines), Europe (Ireland, Germany, Britain, Italy, Portugal) and Latin America (Chile, Mexico, Central America), as well as Black workers from the US South and other American-born people (Daniel 1981; Street 2004; Walker 2004). To counter the organizing of existing workers, foreign born workers were brought in whenever possible in order to create an oversupply of labor that helped maintain low wages. Many were recruited from parts of the world suffering economic and social upheavals, and were often misled about the nature of the opportunities that would be available to them in California. Conditions of travel and life upon arrival were often harsh. Chinese workers were subject to mob violence and individual assaults by whites, some of whom were organized in parallel to the Ku Klux Klan through the Order of Caucasians (Street 2004).

           Widespread Depression-era labor unrest ultimately extracted new labor protections from the federal government, but key reforms that created a national minimum wage and protected the right to unionize were denied to agricultural workers. This national carve-out was a result of a political deal made to appease Southern Democrats intent on preserving Jim Crow by blocking any possibility of improving the circumstances of the region’s mostly Black agricultural workers (Farhang and Katznelson 2005). Then, from 1942 to 1964, the Bracero program formalized the pattern of supplying plentiful foreign-born laborers at low wages – this time from Mexico. Close to five million people were issued short-term worker permits during the lifetime of the program, and others came without official paperwork (Mitchell 2012). The industrialization of agriculture also intensified during this period – poisons were increasingly applied to crops to control pests, and workers suffered the consequences (Walker 2004).

            Ever since the Bracero era, California agricultural workers have remained predominantly Mexican. The latest wave of workers to occupy the bottom rungs of the agricultural work force are indigenous Mexicans whose numbers began to grow in the 1990s. Some speak neither Spanish nor English and are thus particularly vulnerable to abuse. Indigenous farmers are especially concentrated in Coastal California, of which the Salinas Valley is part (Mines, Nichols, and Runsten 2010).

            Across all of this time, whites racialized agricultural workers to justify their exploitation, arguing that people of color were less susceptible to disease, and that particular racialized groups, which changed over time, were “naturally suited” to backbreaking agricultural work (Holmes 2013; Maldonado 2009; Omi and Winant 2015; Street 2004). White farm owners and politicians also racialized agricultural workers to build up social barriers between groups in order to make cross-racial organizing more difficult (Valdés 2011). As a result, since colonization farmworkers have worked under changing legal circumstances that have had them work without wages or have kept those wages low. These systems have been extraordinarily effective. In 2019, the state earned over $50 billion in cash receipts from agriculture, making it the leading agricultural state in the nation (USDA Economic Research Service n.d.). The devaluation of agricultural workers of color that many white farmers both benefited from and helped create enabled white agricultural capitalists to pay lower wages and provide worse working conditions than they might have otherwise, thus generating more profits. In other words, racial capitalism provided a foundation for California agriculture from its origins to the present day, even though at certain moments of history poor whites also formed significant parts of the exploited class of farmworkers.

***

            The tendency for white farmers to be valorized and for people of color farmers and farmworkers to be obscured is deep and long-standing. But while most of the agriculturally themed Salinas Valley cut-out billboard murals depict white-presenting people, what makes the collection more interesting are the murals that call attention to Latinx farmworkers. The paintings of them are dignified and show them as contributors not only to the local economy, but also the global food supply. For example, in Image 5, a Latino worker carries a long length of irrigation pipe on one shoulder in front of text that reads, “Salinas Valley: Feeding Our Nation.” The mural connects Latinx agricultural labor to masculinity, pride of place and pride in farmworker contributions to the global food supply. These images uniquely stretch the Jeffersonian valorization of white farmers to include Latinx farmworkers as well. This is significant in light of the systemic erasure of farmworkers from the public imagination of agriculture (Alkon and McCullen 2011).

            Returning to Althusser’s theory of ideology is useful here. In his accounts, ruling ideologies that support the status quo coexist with challenger ideologies that contest the status quo. But, ruling ideologies often incorporate parts of these challenger ideologies in ways that blunt their impact. As a result, ruling ideologies change over time, responding to changing political conditions in ways that sustain capitalism. Indeed, dominant agricultural ideologies in the US have changed over time in ways that parallel broader ideological change: from Jeffersonian agrarianism (Jefferson 1982), to white nostalgia (Adamkiewicz 2016; Maly et al. 2013; Mann 2008), to, most recently, symbolic multiculturalism (Gunderson 2021).[i]

            Multiculturalism potentially functions as a challenger ideology, but, when reduced largely to symbolism, becomes another facet of ruling ideologies. The Latinx workers depicted in the Salinas Valley billboard art can be read as examples of symbolic multiculturalism, which showcases people of color without fundamentally challenging their (collectively) subordinate place in the economy. Symbolic multiculturalism can do more than simply fail to make things better – in depicting people of color as happy and empowered, it can actively undercut efforts to reduce racism by promoting the idea that racism no longer exists.[ii]

Image 5: Billboard mural visible from highway 68 when entering Salinas from the south. Photo by Tracy Perkins. Mural by John Cerney.

            These outcomes can occur even when they are not the intention of the artist nor of the person commissioning the art. The first billboard cut-out people that artist Cerney created were commissioned by the owner of a local produce company to honor his workers, many of whom are Latinx, and to draw attention to their contributions to the food supply (Pogash 2005). As the farm owner says, “I was tired of people bad-mouthing agriculture… thinking everything comes out of a bag or carton. I was trying to show the community it takes a lot of people to grow food, that farming is a good occupation and that people work in the fields to produce good food for us” (Paris 1999). The figures were modeled on employees, and one was even painted to honor a specific worker who had been with the company for over fifty years on the occasion of his 80th birthday (see Image 1) (Cerney n.d.). The website of the company that commissioned and displays the 18-foot-tall murals describes the labor that each of the billboard people are conducting: thinning, harvesting, packing, and weighing boxes of harvested lettuce, as well as overseeing the irrigation and the farm as a whole. The billboards and website together educate the public about the specific, diverse skills need to accomplish the tasks required of farmworkers and farm managers (Anon n.d.-c).

            Commentators quoted in press coverage of the billboard murals respond with enthusiastic endorsements, from the president of Salinas Valley Chamber of Commerce to a dean at nearby Hartnell College to a spokesperson for Salinas’s National Steinbeck Center (Garcia 2017; Paris 1999; Pogash 2005; Roth 2013). The latter says that the billboard murals “do what public art is supposed to do, it enriches the landscape visually and emotionally” (Pogash 2005). Journalists call the work empowering and heroic (Garcia 2017; Pogash 2005), or comment on the likeness between Cerney’s work and that of famed local author John Steinbeck, writing, “In a certain light, Cerney’s plywood figures are an extension of Steinbeck’s lifelong passion for giving voice to the voiceless” (Roth 2013). The only slightly sour note is sounded by the chair of the Visual and Public Arts Department at nearby California State University Monterey Bay, who notes that the murals do not show, “poor working conditions, illnesses from pesticides and bad housing,” which is “a whole other story that’s never told” (Pogash 2005). However, she is quoted as saying that this is because the farmer who commissioned the farmworker billboards is “positive and fair with his workers.”

            Herein lies the crux of interpreting the Salinas Valley agricultural billboard art, and other images like it. The intent of the artist and the person who commissions the art matters, as do the labor practices of the farm owners who commission the work and the experiences of the workers depicted. But what is more significant is, first, the way the art will be read by the general public, who know little to nothing of these individual level details, and second, the structural conditions that continue to leave most farmworkers vulnerable to violence and abuse. Even if the farm owners who commission images of farmworkers are all fair-minded employers who go above and beyond existing labor law, the structurally vulnerable position of most farmworkers remains. This vulnerability is not accidental. It has been reproduced at great cost to farmworkers over and over across California history, via, in part, racial capitalism and the ideologies that support it. In sustaining exploitative agricultural economies, these ideologies work in tandem with Althusser’s repressive state apparatuses (1971): the Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcements, and the courts.

            And, despite the above assertion that the farmworker murals give “voice to the voiceless,” this is not actually true. While the murals draw attention to the often-unacknowledged labor of farmworkers, they are painted by artists at the request of farm owners, not farm workers. The results depict a uniformly positive experience of farmwork, despite many farmworkers’ actual claims of difficult working conditions, low pay and abuse, and efforts to have their children enter occupations other than farmwork. None of the press coverage I found included any quotes from farmworkers. Rather, press coverage “gives voice” to the artists, the commissioning farm owners, and at times an array of other local business, cultural and educational leaders. In only one case were the opinions of farmworkers even tangentially referenced. Below, artist Cerney describes a conversation with the farmowner who first commissioned billboards depicting workers, showing how Cerney came to use real farmworkers as the models:

On his first commission, [the farmowner] said, “use your own people [as models].” I said “well, it’ll be more intimate, and you’ll get more of a kick out of it, if you use your own people.” So he relented and I used some of his farmworkers, and now, boy I hear stories of one of these guys who comes out here and cleans it off every couple of weeks, and they’re all proud of it, and it turns out to be a good thing. (Anon 2006)

Of all the existing coverage of the art that I found, this story told by the artist, as told to him by, presumably, the farmowner, is the closest thing to providing insight into farmworker reception of the art. Although the story could have been distorted as it was passed along from farmowner, to artist, to audience, there likely are indeed farmworkers who are pleased to be commemorated in art, or pleased to see images of other farmworkers so commemorated. But such a reception does not affect the billboards’ broader ideological impacts. Despite showcasing the role of Latinx farmworkers in the regional economy and the global food supply, the Salinas Valley agricultural murals also obscure the actual conditions in which much of this labor takes place.

Image 6: Billboard mural of worker bending over to trim iceberg lettuce. Photo by Tracy Perkins. Mural by John Cerney

            What the images show is as important as what they do not show: sexual violence, hunger, injury, exposure to poisons, wage theft, labor regimes that profit from racial hierarchies which leave farmworkers vulnerable by design, and the threat of deportation imposed by a nation that cannot stomach their presence and yet cannot do without their labor. In Fresno County, the most agriculturally productive county in the country with $3.7 billion dollars of annual farm sales, nearly half of farmworkers go hungry (Brown and Getz 2011; Wirth, Strochlic, and Getz 2007). Farmworkers also suffer from multiple, layered health problems that evolve over time in response to pesticide exposure, stoop labor, injuries, violence, and inadequate health care (Holmes 2013; Saxton 2015). Many are part of binational families and remain separated from loved ones for long stretches of time; their opportunities to visit home involve dangerous crossings of the US border that risk their lives (Holmes 2013; De León 2015; Lopez 2007). Women, who make up 29% of California farmworkers (U.S. Department of Labor n.d.), are particularly at risk of sexual violence at work (Waugh 2010; Yeng and Rubenstein 2013). One Salinas Valley field is known among workers as the “field de calzón,” or “field of panties,” because of how many rapes take place there (Tamayo 2000). But the Salinas Valley billboards do not show these grim realities. Instead, the billboard workers often look happy, as in the smiling lettuce worker in Image 6 who is bent over in the form of stoop labor that has long debilitated farmworkers. Crucially, what also is not shown is farmworkers’ long history of collective organizing against these abuses. Rather, the billboard murals depict individual farmworkers contentedly going about their daily labor in the fields in ones, twos and threes, as in Image 7.

Image 7: Billboard mural of woman weeding and thinning early crops. Photo by Tracy Perkins. Mural by John Cerney.

            Though you would not know it from looking at the roadside agricultural imagery of the Salinas Valley, farmworkers consistently found ways to organize for improved working and living conditions across Spanish, Mexican and US rule. In the first 13 years of the 1900s alone, Japanese farmworkers created successful labor associations, Japanese and Mexican sugar beet workers struck in Oxnard, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies) organized farmworkers known as bindlemen, and hop pickers staged the largest strike of farmworkers in California history at that time (it became known as known as “Bloody Sunday” or the Wheatland hop riot) (Street 2004). The Communist Party, Congress of Industrial Organizations, and the American Federation of Labor also all organized agricultural workers through the 1930s. California was a hot-spot: half of the more than 275 agricultural strikes of the 1930s took place there (Valdés 2011:6).

            Although Braceros were brought to the US under conditions designed to limit their ability to organize for improved working conditions, they too undertook such efforts (Loza 2016). Mexican workers organized strikes starting in the very first year of the Bracero Program, 1942. Farmworkers kept striking through, among others, the DiGiorgio farm strike of 1947-1950, the Imperial Valley lettuce strike 1961, and the Delano grape strike of 1965. The latter led to the creation of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), launching the farmworkers movement (Mitchell 2012; Valdés 2011). During the 1960s and 1970s, farmworkers increased their wages, improved working conditions, signed union contracts with employers that banned the use of highly toxic pesticides, strengthened pesticides regulation and helped legalize collective bargaining (Pulido 1996; Wells and Villarejo 2004). Other victories included banning the use of the short handled hoe, called el cortito, which required its users to damage their bodies by staying bent over as they used it, hour after hour, day in and day out (Jourdane 2004). However, many of these gains were later eroded as growers fought against their victories, as Republicans newly voted into public office in 1982 undermined their legislative victories, and as the UFW moved away from its early strategy of on-the-ground organizing (Wells and Villarejo 2004). Knowing this history is vital to developing the ability to see the ‘work’ that ideology does to deflect attention away from the long history of racial capitalism in agriculture, and the long history of resistance to it.

***

           Although all ideology has a relationship to the economic order of the day, the Salinas Valley agricultural billboards have a particularly close relationship to the local economy. While the billboard murals are regularly described in the press as public art, they are also commercial. Many of the images advertise the businesses in question. In some cases this is explicit, as in Image 8, which uses nostalgic, old-timey imagery featuring a 1940’s era tractor and oversized artichokes, a regional specialty, to draw people into a roadside store. Indeed, several of the agricultural billboard murals, such as Image 4, have run into problems with the government resulting from conflicting opinions about whether the images were advertisements, which have size and location restrictions, or art (Anon 2006, Ha 2007; Chatfield 2018). In other cases, the billboards themselves are objects of interest. For example, Images 1, 6 and 7 are listed as attractions at the demonstration farm and visitor center where they are located. Indeed, several of the farms that display the murals run agritourism projects on their properties (corn mazes, pumpkin patches, etc.), and thus need to find ways to encourage visitors (see Image 4). Many of the murals sell an image of agriculture that benefits the farms in question by tapping into nostalgia for purportedly better, simpler times to generate visitors and sales.

Image 8: Roadside mural features a wagon of oversized artichokes, one of the region’s specialties, being pulled by a 1940s-era tractor. Photo by Tracy Perkins. Mural artist unknown.

           Although Cerney says money is not that important to him and that he leads a simple lifestyle (Anon 2006), the practicalities of making a living as an artist still require finding a way to financially support the art. Cerney says, ruefully, “When I can do exactly what I want to do without anyone telling me, that’s what I really love to do. I wish money wasn’t a factor. I would do nothing but my own work, place it in the field, and if my bills were paid I would do nothing but that” (Anon 2017). Instead, as he says elsewhere, “I do a lot of farm stuff because I live here and people ask me to do that” (Paris 1999). Roth makes the connection between Cerney’s art and the regional economy more explicit: “Farm life holds no special appeal for [Cerney], but given that his plywood people are placed in fields and he’s based in one of California’s most profitable farming regions, farm paintings are the ones that bring him the most attention” (2013). Cerney speaks further to the impact of the commission process on subjects of his art, saying that early murals he did on the side of barns,

led to, eventually, people seeing your work and calling you, commercial businesses, “What can you do for me.” Because my work was realism. It was easy for the average person to take in and understand. My thought process, my way of working, was a little Norman Rockwellish, with a little sense of humor. Which everybody got, and everybody understood. So it was easy to sell to make a living doing that. So I got on that treadmill and started doing that. (Anon 2017)

Cerney’s explanations of the financial constraints on his art, and the commercial interests that have led to the creation of much of his agriculturally themed work, underscores the relationship between ruling ideologies and the economic systems in which they are enmeshed. Indeed, the murals are commissioned by people who can both afford the fee and either own or rent property on which to display the billboards, both of which tilt the art away from representing the ideas of poor people such as farmworkers. And given the long-established hostility of many farm owners to organized labor in the region (Flores 2016; Frank Bardacke 2011; Neubeurger 2013), depictions of farmworker organizing would not only not be commissioned by most farm owners, but to many would be unwelcome additions to the regional landscape.

           Imagine, for example, artist Ester Hernández’s 1982 redesign of the famous “Sun Maid” raisin advertisement. The original advertisement features a young white woman wearing a red bonnet and holding a basket of grapes, referencing an Edenic agricultural environment, abundance, purity, and femininity. However, Hernández’s version features the harm experienced by grape workers. She replaces the fresh-faced girl with a skeleton that wears the same red bonnet and holds the same basket of grapes. Hernández’s text tells viewers that “Sun Mad” raisins are “unnaturally grown” with insecticides, miticides, herbicides and fungicides (Hutchison 2013). A subsequent image made in 2008, titled “Sun Raid,” recasts the original advertisement again, this time to critique workplace raids and the deportation of Mexican workers.

           Or, consider Octavio Ocampo’s work, “Cesar Chavez: Portrait of La Causa,” which superimposes UFW leader Chavez over a landscape that could well be the Salinas Valley. An airplane sprays pesticides over skulls on one side of the valley, and crosses float above the mountains at the top of the image. The skulls and crosses represent harm and death to farmworkers, while on the other side of the valley, and showing through Chavez’s translucent face and body, are masses of farmworkers holding banners and signs, representing the farmworker movement. Such artistic representations underscore how far removed the Salinas Valley billboard art is from any critique of the agricultural industry. It is no accident that Hernandez and Ocampo’s paintings are displayed in museums rather than on the properties of commercial farming enterprises.

***     

            The Salinas Valley’s roadside agricultural imagery offers lessons bigger than their local impact. Some of them show that Jeffersonian agrarianism and white nostalgia continue to frame much of the public view of agriculture. Others show that even when these narratives are pierced with depictions of the nation’s Latinx agricultural workforce, just inserting into the public consciousness people whose contributions to society have been systematically minimized is not enough. American history is full of examples of workers who, when they are not erased, are depicted as happy in their circumstances or romanticized in other ways (think, for example, of the “happy slave” tropes present in so many depictions of plantation agriculture (2020)). Such depictions contribute to the continuation of exploitative labor regimes by associating the status quo with warm, happy feelings. As one admirer writes, “Every time I cruise by one of Cerney’s pieces, I think of the thousands of drivers and passengers locked in their cars. Suddenly, a purple and orange cow appears on a roadside field. Moods improve. Life seems simpler and easier. Even if it’s just for a moment. That, to my way of thinking, is the highest form of public art in public places” (Nordstrand 2014). This writer references a quirky mural of a multicolored cow as an example, but their comments also apply to the murals depicting the human components of agriculture – the farmers and farmworkers that make it all happen. But what is needed is not public art that reassures, but art that unsettles. Art that reifies old, romantic tropes of agricultural labor serves the ideological and commercial interests that have exploited farmworkers for centuries. What is needed is art that challenges ruling ideologies by centering workers’ interests rather than those of their employers.

Acknowledgements

Christopher Gunderson’s generous suggestions provided much of the theoretical framework of this paper. The author would also like to thank for their comments Ruben Espinoza, Rodney Green, Vernon Morris, Manuel Vallée, Lauren Richter, Christie McCullen, and participants in the fall 2019 “Currents: Humanities Work Now” series at the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s Dresher Center for the Humanities, at which an early version of this work was presented.

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Saxton, Dvera I. 2015. “Strawberry Fields as Extreme Environments: The Ecobiopolitics of Farmworker Health.” Medical Anthropology: Cross Cultural Studies in Health and Illness 34(2):166–83. doi.org/10.1080/01459740.2014.959167

Street, Richard Steven. 2004. Beasts of the Field: A Narrative History of California Farmworkers, 1769-1913. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press. 

Tamayo, William R. 2000. “The Role of the EEOC in Protecting the Civil Rights of Farm Workers.” UC Davis Law Review 33:1075–86. 

U.S. Department of Labor. n.d. “Table 13: Hired Crop Worker Demographics, California Estimates, Six Time Periods.” National Agricultural Workers Survey. Retrieved February 21, 2020 (https://www.doleta.gov/naws/research/data-tables/). 

USDA Economic Research Service. n.d. “Cash Receipts by Commodity, State Ranking, 2019 Nominal (Current Dollars).” Retrieved December 13, 2020 (https://data.ers.usda.gov/reports.aspx?ID=17844). 

Valdés, Dionicio Nodín. 2011. Organized Agriculture and the Labor Movement Before the UFW: Puerto Rico, Hawai’i, California. Austin: University of Texas Press. 

Wald, Sarah D. 2011. “Visible Farmers/Invisible Workers: Locating Immigrant Labor in Food Studies.” Food, Culture and Society 14(4):567–86. doi.org/10.2752/175174411X13046092851479

Wald, Sarah D. 2016. The Nature of California: Race, Citizenship, and Farming since the Dust Bowl. Seattle: University of Washington Press. 

Walker, Richard A. 2004. The Conquest of Bread: 150 Years of Agribusiness in California. New York: The New Press. 

Waugh, Irma Morales. 2010. “Examining the Sexual Harassment Experiences of Mexican Immigrant Farmworking Women.” Violence Against Women 16(3):237–61. doi.org/10.1177/1077801209360857

Wells, Miriam, and Don Villarejo. 2004. “State Structures and Social Movement Strategies: The Shaping of Farm Labor Protections in California.” Politics & Society 32(3):291–326. 

White, Monica. 2018. Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 

Wirth, Cathy, Ron Strochlic, and Christy Getz. 2007. Hunger in the Fields: Food Insecurity among Farmworkers in Fresno County. California Institute for Rural Studies. Davis, CA. 

Yeng, Bernice, and Grace Rubenstein. 2013. “Female Workers Face Rape, Harassment in U.S. Agriculture Industry.” Frontline, June 25. Retrieved February 21, 2020 (https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/female-workers-face-rape-harassment-in-u-s-agriculture-industry/). 


[i] Christopher Gunderson provided this term as I have used it here. I have since found that there is also limited, overlapping use of the term in the published literature, used primarily to describe Canadian politics (Roberts and Clifton 1990).

[ii] Symbolic multiculturalism thus overlaps significantly with what other scholars have called color-blind racism, racism without racists, and multiracial white supremacy (Bonilla-Silva 2014; Omi and Winant 2015). All of these respond to claims of racism with surface-level improvements that allow some few people of color to rise to elevated social and economic positions without fundamentally challenging racism at its roots, thus sustaining overall racial inequality.

Tracy Perkins is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. She specializes in social inequality, social movements, the environment, agriculture and the politics of knowledge, and produces traditional written academic output as well as photography and digital humanities websites. Her book Evolution of a Movement: Four Decades of California Environmental Justice Activism (University of California Press, 2022) examines the political evolution of the California environmental justice movement from the 1980s to the mid 2010s. Dr. Perkins has degrees from UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and UC Santa Cruz, and previously worked as an Assistant Professor at Howard University. See more of her work at tracyperkins.org.

ArticlesPhotography/Art

Indigenous Oaxacan Visibility

Brenda Nicolas

The following article references the exhibition and programming series Boom Oaxaca. Presented by Arte Américas and the Centro Binacional para el Desarollo Indígena Oaxaqueño, “Boom Oaxaca: Conversaciones de Campo a Campo” is an invitation to participate in local and transnational conversations around food sovereignty and Indigenous sovereignty as issues that uniquely converge in the Central Valley’s Oaxaqueño community. Boom Oaxaca is guided by the work of Narsiso Martinez and Tlacolulokos, who use self-representation and visibility as an act of political rebellion, and as an autonomous approach to an ownership of culture. Grounded in the context of both Oaxaca and California, these artists create images of often invisibilized spaces, and in turn demand attention and humanize the experiences of their community. The exhibit is open until August 14th, 2022 at Arte Américas, Fresno California. For more information visit: https://boomoaxaca.com/

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To talk about Latinidad, migration, or invisibility, requires us to examine Indigenous migration from Abiayala (Latin America).[1] When we consider Indigenous diasporas from Abiayala and across the Pacific, in addition to American Indians in the United States, California is one of three states with the largest Indigenous population.[2] In the San Joaquín Valley, Ñuu Savi (Mixtecos) from Oaxaca and Triquis make up most of the Indigenous Mexican diaspora.[3] Their migration and settlement patterns are due to Mexico opening to US foreign markets (1960s–1980s) that instituted agricultural reforms to seize communally owned lands throughout Oaxaca, largely ending self-sufficient farming.[4] The restructuring of the market caused pricing of corn and other main crops to drastically fall, which then prevented small farmers and families in rural Mexico to compete with large-scale companies. As Indigenous Oaxacans were forced to migrate, large-scale farmers subsequently benefitted from agricultural reforms and sought cheap and skilled labor from those fleeing the Mixteca region, including Triquis and Zapotecs mostly from the Sierra Norte, to be hired in Veracruz, northern Mexico, such as Sinaloa, San Quintin, and other Baja California areas, and eventually the United States.[5] With NAFTA, however, US contract recruiters sought Oaxacans as new immigrant cheap labor to supplant traditional migrant-sending rural communities from states like Michoacán, Jalisco, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí, and Zacatecas who are largely non-Indigenous mestizos.[6]

As the “Boom Oaxaca” exhibition seeks to make visible, Oaxacan migrants are predominantly Indigenous peoples who have settled in San Diego, Los Angeles County, Oxnard, Santa María, Bakersfield, Fresno, Madera, Watsonville, and Hollister. The US racialization process towards migrants from south of the border, unfortunately obscures their unique identity and culture. We are Indigenous peoples, not Latina/o or Hispanics. As Native peoples to the “Americas” relationship to land is tied to Indigenous world views, practices, and mutual existence that shapes how Indigenous Oaxacan diasporas make meaning to the lands we are guests/visitors on. Therefore, to talk about Indigenous Oaxacans in the United States requires us to rethink how we have historically been racialized in this country, how our racialization affects us, and how it benefits colonial structures who force us out of our Native land, while extracting natural “resources” that give life to all beings. Ñuu Savi, Triqui, Zapotec, Chinantecs, and other Indigenous Oaxacan generations throughout California, continue to organize across the US and Mexico border.

Tlacolulokos, (Ruiz Gallery, Arte Américas) — Photo by Samuel Contreras

From grassroots efforts built in response to racial violence (“bullying”), labor injustices in the fields, living conditions in the US, to state repression in Oaxaca—particularly the horrific tortures, murders, and disappearances of teachers and allies during the 2006 uprising, and other unlivable conditions perpetrated and allowed under settler colonial governments—Oaxacans throughout California and in Mexico have never stopped organizing nor demanding justice. Grassroots cross-border organizations like the Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales (FIOB) have left their footprints for newer generations, and nonprofits like the Centro Binacional Para el Desarrollo Indígena Oaxaqueño (CBDIO), and the Mixtec Indígena Community Organizing Project (MICOP) have also enabled our visibility and our voice as Indigenous peoples by speaking against racial, cultural, and linguistic homogenization that affects both our self-determination and rights to existence as Indigenous peoples. Children of migrants who were brought as children or who were born in the United States are maintaining and constructing new ways in which as Indigenous Oaxacans we say, “still here,” “we do exist” and we continue to be Indigenous despite thousands of miles away from our ancestral homelands.[7] From the FIOB youth to the Oaxacan Youth Encuentro (OYE), the Tequio Youth Group in Oxnard, Los Autónomos in the Central Valley, the OaxaCal student group at UC Berkeley, other youth-led Oaxacan collectives, cooperatives, including Oaxacans with a large social media presence, demonstrate how Indigeneity is neither static nor is it detached from homeland or collective existence. Being Ñuu Savi, Triqui, Zapotec is a complex interplay between land, memory, survival, and relational being.

This space (not a place) that Oaxacans refer to as Oaxacalifornia, a term coined by anthropologist Michael Kearney, takes many shapes and reflects both the violent and nonviolent experiences Oaxacans generations have confronted.[8] As younger generations come of age, however, they increasingly reflect how their unique position as Indigenous guests on Native land informs their interactions with the Native people whose lands they are guest on. In her work with relocated American Indians and Indigenous Oaxacans in Silicon Valley, Renya K. Ramírez (Winnebago/Ojibwe), refers to this coexistence as “Native Hub.” For Ramírez “Native Hub” is a collective network of support relocated American Indians and Indigenous Oaxacan migrants create using their knowledge, cultural, social, and political processes to build intracommunity belonging away from home.[9] As a growing field of study, Critical Latinx Indigeneities (CLI) privileges Indigenous diasporas from “Latin America” in scholarly work by considering social, political, cultural, religious, and other forms of collective Indigenous practices in the US. Since its formation in 2013, Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars—long dedicated with Indigenous migrants—take on a critical analysis that considers Indigenous diasporas’ unique position as guests on Native land and settler colonial interventions across Abiayala.[10] In doing so, CLI scholars have added to the complexities of Latinidad, Chicanidad, and mestizaje.

The art presented by Zapotec artists Narsiso Martínez and the Tlacolulokos bring together diverse Indigenous Oaxacan experiences in the San Joaquín Valley of California. Based on self and community representation, they portray a plurality of Oaxacan migrant experiences spanning the Central Valley and Los Angeles County. Martínez, who was born in Oaxaca and migrated to California at the age of twenty, represents the hard labor of Oaxacan migrants working in the fields. Unique to his style is the use of produce boxes, rather than canvas, which he gathers himself from local grocery stores. With the use of these recycled boxes, he gives greater meaning not only to those who help produce what they hold, but to everyday consumers who seldom think of the people exposed more than eight hours a day to scorching heat waves and pesticides. As a former farmworker himself, Martínez began working in the fields as a young kid. During college, he returned to work in the fields to pay for his tuition. His story, however, is not his alone—many Oaxacan children raised in the Central Valley have had similar experiences, including some of the organizers and contributors to this exhibition and those they grew up with, such as members of the CBDIO and FIOB Fresno.

Narsiso Martínez, Always Fresh, 2018, Ink, Charcoal, Gouache, Gold Leaf, and Collage on Reclaimed Produce Boxes, Compound LB. © 2018, Narsiso Martinez. Photo by Roger Gonzalez.

Young Oaxacans in the fields and at school face endless anti-Indigenous discrimination by the larger non-Indigenous Mexican community they grew up alongside. This discrimination, at times being physical violence, frequently targets Oaxacans who speak their Native language in public, have darker skin and other bodily stereotypical features, and simply for “looking Indigenous.” For example, take the 2012 campaign, “No Me Llames Oaxaquita” (“Don’t Call Me Little Oaxacan”), where Indigenous Oaxacans organized to demand the Ventura County School District ban the derogatory term “Oaxaquita” and “Indito” (little Indian) from their schools after incessant ridicule and bullying.[11] Yet this case, which received international news, is not new—it has been happening since the first wave of Oaxacan children, many of whom are now in their late forties and fifties in Los Angeles. Through his art, Martínez demonstrates his own experience as a former field worker, which is often the experience of many other Oaxacan youth in the US.

Similarly, Dario Canul and Cosijoesa Cernas, two Zapotec men from the Tlacolula-based art collective known as the Tlacolulokos, show a multitude of Oaxacan urban experiences in their murals. Particularly, they capture the experiences and emotions between different urban landscapes that Oaxacan migrants cross (Los Angeles and now Fresno) and those they leave behind (mostly the Central Valleys of Oaxaca and more recently the Sierra Juárez). Like Martínez, the portraits they draw have names, are living, and not made up. They express sadness, longing, happiness, rebellion, thoughtfulness, firmness, and seriousness. More than a simple mixture in art, they bring the nostalgia and impact on traditions that migration has had on Oaxacans by displaying the portraits with tattoos, piercings, baggy jeans, blue LA Dodger baseball caps, white T-shirts, and Nike Cortes, while merging them with the traditional clothes and hairdos of the pueblos, alongside a wind instrument like a trumpet.

Tlacolulokos, Guerreros de la Calle, 2021, acrylic paint on cotton canvas, Arte Américas. Commissioned for Boom Oaxaca with a grant from The McClatchy Fresno Arts Endowment of The James B. McClatchy Foundation. © 2021, Tlacolulokos. Photo by Roger Gonzalez.
Tlacolulokos, Low Rider, 2021, acrylic paint on cotton canvas, Arte Américas. Commissioned for Boom Oaxaca with a grant from The McClatchy Fresno Arts Endowment of The James B. McClatchy Foundation. © 2021, Tlacolulokos. Photo by Yadani 
Tlacolulokos, Hazlo tu Mismo, 2021, acrylic paint on cotton canvas, Arte Américas. Commissioned for Boom Oaxaca with a grant from The McClatchy Fresno Arts Endowment of The James B. McClatchy Foundation. © 2021, Tlacolulokos. Photo by Yadani 

Although Cernas and Canul have never migrated to California, through conversations they record on both sides of the border, they are able to understand the difficulty migrants express of living and working hard in the US to barely get by, while attempting to send remittances to their loved ones. Meanwhile, those who stay in the pueblos feel the everyday pain of having their child, husband, parent, or sibling del otro lado (on the other side) wondering when, and if at all, they will see each other due to their immigration status. One of their mural panel displays from their 2017 exhibition, “Visualizing Language: Oaxaca in Los Angeles,” states, “Donde quiera que vayas” (wherever you may go), which makes homage of all generations in diaspora that we have not forgotten where we come from, even if we were not born there. Their identity and love for their pueblos is ours too—we continue to be communally invested in and with our pueblos and relatives back in the hometown. In other words, we live, embody, and in multiple ways continue our traditional practices with our pueblos.

These multiple forms of practices are rooted in Indigenous ways of being described as comunalidad, according to Ayuujk intellectual, Floriberto Díaz Gómez (1951–1995) from Tlahuitoltepec Mixe, and Zapotec intellectual, Jaime Martínez Luna (b. 1951) from Guelatao in the Sierra Juárez. Comunalidad are practices rooted in the community’s collective wellbeing. They are run by, for, and with the community. These communal practices happen through dances, playing in the Oaxacan brass bands, harvesting, and taking on a cargo (position) in our usos y costumbres (Indigenous customary law)municipalities and its agencies, especially for pueblos of the Sierra and Mixteca region that still practice multiple communal ways of life, and do not have electoral politics or political parties.

As Indigenous peoples in the United States, our comunalidad practices and beliefs of “doing for the good of the people” have also been used in demanding that our rights be respected. Most recently, the killing of Zapotec youth, Gerardo Martínez Chávez, by the Salinas (Monterey County) police has sparked outrage among the community. The ongoing murders and brutality by the police against Brown and Black unarmed men for crimes they did not commit.[12] However, Indigenous men, mostly from Latin America, like that of Mr. Martínez Chávez and Maya Ki’che’ day laborer Manuel Jamines Xum, shot and killed by the LAPD in 2012, have made it all too clear that Indigenous peoples continue to be invisible beyond the countries they came from. Both men’s language was their Native Zapotec and Maya, respectively, and therefore community organizers and other human rights advocates argue that they did not understand the English or Spanish commands of the officers nor were they offered a translator. Under federal law, any public agency receiving federal money, like a hospital, clinic, or police station, is required to have a translator available for the person in question, regardless of legal status. Organizations throughout California, like that of the Centro Binacional Para el Desarrollo Indígena Oaxaqueño, the Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales, the Mixteco Indígena Community Organizing Project, and the Comunidades Indígenas en Liderazgo have begun to provide interpreting services for Indigenous Oaxacan migrants, and others as well, throughout the country.

As a space in which multiple Indigenous Oaxacan voices come together with allies, “Boom Oaxaca” attempts to make visible distinctive and common ground experiences as Ñuu Savi, Triqui, Zapotec, and other Indigenous Oaxacans. Like the artists themselves, the portraits, Indigenous organizations and sponsors of the exhibition, and academics who are Zapotec, we say invisible no more! We continue to exist and be Indigenous! To intentionally map ourselves in these spaces is to resist settler colonial erasure inside and outside Latinidad, Chicanidad and mestizaje. Like Indigeneity, Oaxacans are diverse, have held fluid identities to survive elimination, and have complex realities that cannot be singly defined, but do require the creation of “comfortable spaces to have uncomfortable conversations” about Indigeneity, nationalism, racial violence, even if others may not want to listen or brings up critiques of Indigenous appropriation. As Indigenous peoples, responsibility and respect are a comunalidad process among each other as pueblos originarios (original pueblos/peoples). Many Oaxacan generations in diaspora are still closely related to our respective pueblos. These same Indigenous communal values of respect for the land and its peoples are now part of our relationship building with the Native peoples on whose land we are guests throughout California. To our Indigenous Oaxacan communities and relations, we give thanks—Yoshxleno!

~ A Zapoteca mother & scholar, Brenda Nicolas (Sierra Norte).


Notes:

[1] Also spelled Abya Yala.

[2] Census 2020

[3] Fox and Rivera-Salgado 2004; Holmes 2013

[4] Andrews 2018

[5] Hernández-Díaz 2019

[6] Cornelius 1990; Durand, Massey, and Zenteno 2001

[7] Odilia Romero, Los Angeles Times, 2021.

[8] Kearny 1991, 1995; Rivera-Salgado 2014; Stephen 2014

[9] Ramírez 2007

[10] Blackwell, Boj Lopez, and Urrieta, 2017.

[11] For more on the “No Me Llames Oaxaquita” campaign see, Nicolas, “Reclamando lo que es nuestro: Identity Formation Among Zapoteco Youth in Oaxaca and Los Angeles” (2012); Marco Werman, “Oxnard Group Trying  to Make ‘Oaxaquita’ Epithet Illegal,” The World: Public Radio International, May 31, 2012, https://www.pri.org/stories/2012-05-31/oxnard-group-trying-make-oaxaquita-epithet-illegal.

[12] Nix et al. 2017.

Dr. Brenda Nicolas (Bene Xhiin, Zapotec) is Assistant Professor in Global Studies at UC Irvine where her work looks at the transborder communal experiences of Zapotec diasporas in Los Angeles. Dr. Nicolas received her PhD in Chicana/o and Central American Studies (UCLA). She has an M.A. in Chicana/o Studies (UCLA) and an M.A. in Latin American Studies from UC San Diego. She holds a B.A in Sociology and Latin American Studies from UC Riverside. She lives in LA and enjoys spending time outdoors with her son and husband.

La Dra. Brenda Nicolás (Bene xhiin, zapoteca) es Profesora Asistente en la facultad de Estudios de Globalidad en UC Irvine donde su trabajo analiza las experiencias comunitarias transfronterizas de las diásporas zapotecas en Los Ángeles. La Dra. Nicolás recibió su doctorado en Chicana/o y Estudios Centroamericanos (UCLA) donde también completó una Maestría. Tiene una Maestría en Estudios Latinoamericanos de UC San Diego y recibió una licenciatura en Sociología y Estudios Latinoamericanos de UC Riverside. Vive en Los Ángeles y le gusta pasar tiempo en las afueras con su hijo y esposo.